9 Reasons Your Car Smells Like Something Is Burning

If your vehicle smells like it’s burning, chances are, something is literally burning. But the question is, where is it coming from and what’s causing it?

The truth is that there are a few different potential causes (doing donuts the obvious one), and it’s essential to track down exactly what’s going on so you can remedy the situation as soon as possible.

Here are 9 of the most common causes of a burning smell coming from your car to help your troubleshooting efforts.

burning smell in car

Common Causes of a Burning Smell From Your Vehicle

While the most common causes of a burning smell coming from your car are an electrical short or a damaged A/C compressor, those are far from the only potential causes.

Check out each cause below and take a look at your vehicle – it might be precisely what you need to track down your problem and save you a few bucks at the shop.

#1 – Burning Electrical Components/Worn Out Fuse

burnt car wiring

If your vehicle smells like burning electrical components, chances are it’s burning electrical components. This is one of the most common causes of a burning smell in the interior of your vehicle.

Electricity generates a ton of heat, but usually the wiring and various components contain all that heat. However, when there is a short in the system, that heat gets stuck in one place.

Electrical shorts can eat through plastic and various other components, generating a burning smell inside your vehicle. It can also be extremely serious. If the short reaches a more flammable component, it will ignite, and the short can heat up and damage other wiring.

#2 – Overheating A/C Compressor

bad AC compressor symptoms

Does your vehicle smell like it’s burning after you turn on the air conditioning? If so, there’s a good chance the problem is a faulty A/C compressor. Your vehicle’s A/C compressor is belt-driven, and if there are problems internally, there are two different ways this can generate a burning smell.

First, the entire A/C compressor can be stuck. So, when it engages, it can grab the belt, causing the belt to heat up and wear out. Not only will this wear out your drive belt prematurely, but it will also generate a burning smell.

But the more common problem is that the A/C compressor will turn – even though there is a problem internally. The compressor will engage, the belt will turn it, and damaged components will start spinning inside the compressor. This generates a ton of friction, which generates heat, and it starts to burn.

#3 – Stuck Brakes/Improper Driving Technique

hot car brakes

There are a few different reasons your vehicle’s brakes might be burning – and none of them are good.

Let’s start with the mechanical failure – stuck brakes. This could be your parking brake or service brakes if they’re not releasing as they should, it will generate a ton of friction and overheat.

With enough heat, the brakes can catch fire, which will result in a loss of braking power! But just because your brakes are burning doesn’t mean there’s a mechanical problem. You might have accidentally left the parking brake engaged, or you might be driving improperly.

There are two common ways this happens. First, you can be driving with your foot on the brake. Many novice drivers do this, but if you’re riding your brakes all the time, they can quickly overheat.

The second problem happens when you’re driving in extremely steep terrain. When heading down a steep incline, many drivers will ride the brakes, and this can cause them to overheat.

While this is more common with larger vehicles – and it’s why steep inclines have runaway ramps for truckers – if any vehicle rides the brakes long enough and hard enough down any incline they can overheat their brakes!

Related: When Happens When You Drive With the Parking Brake On

#4 – Broken or Stuck Belt

broken serpentine belt

Another common problem that causes a burning smell in your car is a stuck or broken serpentine or accessory belt. This will smell like burning rubber, and it is serious problem.

Various issues can create this problem, including a stuck pulley or accessory or even a snagged or damaged belt!

Also, keep in mind that if your vehicle has a completely broken belt, you’ll likely have a burning smell as well. That’s because the cooling system in your car uses a water pump, and the water pump is belt-driven. So, if the serpentine belt isn’t working as it should, the engine will end up overheating!

#5 – Leaking Fluids

burning oil smell

Transmission fluid, power steering fluid, oil, and even coolant will burn if it’s left on a hot enough surface. While this isn’t a problem, you have to worry about if all the fluids are staying where they’re supposed to. If there’s a leak or you’ve overfilled coolant or another fluid, it can happen.

Pockets in the engine or the top of the exhaust are both areas that get hot enough to burn fluids if they stick around long enough, and burning fluids create a burning smell.

See Also: Does Skunk Smell on a Car Go Away On Its Own?

#6 – Burning Clutch

burnt clutch

Another problem that can cause a burning smell is with the clutch. The clutch places the transmission in neutral so you can switch gears, and it does this by pushing against the pressure plate.

But if you’re not fully releasing the clutch either before or after switching gears or riding the clutch pedal, the clutch will overheat and burn.

This is a common occurrence when drivers are learning to drive a stick shift vehicle (manual), but it’s also important to learn to go easy on the clutch – otherwise, you’ll end up replacing it far sooner than you should.

See Also: 5 Signs of a Bad Flywheel

#7 – Debris in the Heater

smell from car vent

Yes, you can have a burning smell when you turn on the A/C, but what’s it mean when it only happens when you turn on the heat? Well, most of the time it means something has found its way into the vents and is burning.

We’ve found M&Ms, plastic bags, and even old rags in heater vents – and all of these things can create a burning smell when you blast the heat.

Related: How to Clean a Cabin Air Filter

#8 – Old Fluids

engine oil sludge

When was the last time you changed your oil or transmission fluid? When the oil is fresh, everything runs smooth, but as it ages, it thickens up, loses its ability to absorb heat, and most importantly, stops lubricating parts as efficiently.

All of these things add up to trouble. Not only will everything get hot – which can lead to a burning smell – but it can also scorch and damage different components. If you leave the old fluid in long enough, engine damage will result.

See Also: How to Do a Burnout in an Automatic

#9 – Loose/Damaged Splash Shield or Wheel Well Liner

plastic piece dragging under car

If a splash shield or wheel well liner comes loose, it can come into contact with moving parts on your vehicle, such as the drive shafts, axles, tires, or wheels. As the plastic rubs against these components, it creates friction, which generates heat. This can eventually cause the plastic to produce a noticeable burning smell.

Even worse, if a dangling splash shield comes into direct contact with your extremely hot exhaust system, the plastic piece touching it is going to quickly melt or burn and result in a strong odor.

Can You Drive Your Car If It Smells Like It’s Burning?

While you can technically drive your car with a burning smell, you absolutely should not! That’s because every potential cause of a burning smell in your vehicle is serious, and it can quickly turn into a dangerous situation.

In fact, these problems are so serious that the very next stop in your car needs to be to the mechanic. Burning smells can start fires, total engines, and take out your brakes. Get your vehicle to a mechanic or repair the underlying issue – but don’t keep driving your car!

Adam Mann

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