If you notice a burning smell in your car, you want to stop and take notice. Because if something smells like it’s burning, chances are something is.
But while identifying the smell is easy, tracking down exactly where it’s coming from is a bit more challenging. So, assuming you’re not doing a burnout, what could be causing that burning rubber smell in your car? Keep reading for the five most common causes.
1. Stuck Brakes/Improper Driving
By far the most common cause of a car that smells like burning rubber is a car with faulty brakes or a driver that’s riding them too hard. Yes, we know that your vehicle doesn’t have rubber brakes, but the two smells are easily confused.
- If the brakes are stuck, you should feel a drag as you’re driving.
- You’ll need to apply extra acceleration to get and stay moving, and that’s never a good sign. Start by checking the parking brake, as often it’s not fully disengaged.
- If that’s not the problem, then your brakes have a deeper problem you need to investigate.
- If you’re an experienced mechanic, you can look into the calipers and pistons to see if there’s a problem. If you’re not, let an experienced technician take a look.
However, before you drive off to the repair shop, verify that it’s not because of improper driving technique. If you’re utilizing the brakes too often without giving them a break, it could lead to them overheating and generating a burning smell.
This is especially common on steep declines, as drivers struggle to stay at the approved speed limits, they can quickly wear out the brakes. While it’s more common for larger vehicles, and it’s why they have truck run-away ramps, if you ride the brakes too hard, it can happen to any vehicle.
2. Damaged Clutch/Improper Driving
Anyone that’s taught new drivers how to drive a stick shift vehicle is familiar with how a burning clutch smells. It’s extremely common for new drivers because if you don’t fully depress or release the clutch at the right time, it generates too much friction and starts to burn.
Once again, this isn’t a true rubber-burning smell, but it’s incredibly similar. While you technically could have a damaged clutch, it’s relatively rare. An inexperienced driver almost always causes the smell.
But if you’re sure that’s not the problem, you can have an experienced mechanic check it out or replace the clutch.
3. Stuck or Damaged Belt
One of the few problems that can actually be burning rubber in your vehicle is the drive belt or accessory belts. You can find the belts in your vehicle’s engine bay, and they drive tons of components in your vehicle.
But if the belt is generating a burning smell, that means that it’s likely stuck or damaged. If it’s the primary drive belt, this can lead to many problems, including an overheating engine, dead batteries, and even a loss of power steering!
Meanwhile, if it’s an accessory belt, the impact is a little less severe, as long as the belt doesn’t physically interfere with other components. A stuck or damaged accessory belt can result in a loss of A/C or another similar component.
If you have a stuck or damaged belt, a physical inspection of the front of the engine can typically help you pinpoint the problem.
4. Leaking Fluids
When the fluids in your vehicle stay where they’re supposed to, you generally don’t get any odd smells. But if your vehicle has a leak, those fluids can settle on extremely hot components, and when they burn off, this can generate a smell that is awfully similar to burnt rubber.
If you have leaking fluids, you need to track down the leak’s source and repair it as soon as possible. And as much as we’d like to narrow it down for you here, it really could be just about anything. Engine oil, antifreeze, power steering fluid, and transmission fluid can all leak and create a burning smell.
5. Electrical Short
If there’s an electrical short somewhere in the system, that will generate a ton of heat. And while it’s unlikely that an electrical short will actually be melting rubber, as rubber is an excellent insulator – it could be melting something.
Melted fuses are relatively common, but anything the short is brushing up against could be causing the smell.
Other Potential Causes
While none of these causes will smell exactly like burning rubber, they will smell like something is burning. So, if you’ve ruled out the other more likely causes, check out these potential problems.
Old fluids can generate a burning smell even if they’re right where they’re supposed to be. As long as you’re in the service intervals, you’re good to go, but if you’ve missed a few oil changes or fluid flushes, this might be the problem.
Another huge issue comes with the A/C and heat. If either of these issues is the problem, you’ll only notice when you turn on the heat or air conditioning, respectively. If you notice a burning smell whenever you turn on the A/C, there’s a good chance you need to replace the compressor.
There are tons of moving components inside the compressor, and if they’re rubbing up against each other while moving, it’ll generate a ton of heat and a burning smell.
However, if you only notice the burning smell when you turn on the heat, you need to double-check the vents. You’d be surprised by what mechanics find in those vents, from candy to rags, anything that’s stuck in the vents when you start pumping out heat can begin to burn.
The Final Point
If you notice a burning smell in your vehicle and can’t track down its source, it’s time to take your vehicle to the shop. While none of us like unexpected expenses, ignoring something that’s burning will only lead to more expensive repairs in the future.
So, take your best shot with the recommendations above, but if you can’t find the problem, take it to someone who can.