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'Nose teams' and the science behind new car smell

New car smell — you either love it or hate it. It’s a specific scent, acombination of as yet unstabilised chemical compounds released from newplastics, synthetic seat fabrics, glue, vinyl and if you’re at theright price level, leather.

New car smell — you either love it or hate it. It’s a specific scent, a combination of as yet unstabilised chemical compounds released from new plastics, synthetic seat fabrics, glue, vinyl and if you’re at the right price level, leather.


Fortunately, automakers work hard to remove potentially harmful chemicals and reduce toxic odours from their cars.


Volvo has strict guidelines in order to reduce unhealthy emissions and cut down the amount of hydrocarbons emitted from the materials in the car. They also want your car to smell sweet.


Hanna Sundqvist is one of nine members of Volvo’s “Nose team” of test engineers, responsible for assessing odours from the materials in a car. Analysis of the emissions reveals what substances are emitted and completes the test results from the odour panel.


“We try to reduce odour,” she explains. “We tolerate a certain level of odour as long as it is perceived as pleasant — an odour that we like to have in our new cars.”


She explains that odour is subjective, someone’s perception of a substance. “There is no analytical instrument that can tell if something smells good or bad or how bad. To do this evaluation the human nose is outstanding.”


Samples of the material to be evaluated are placed in glass bottles and heated at 40C for 24 hours. The team then scores the scent from 1 (noticeable) to 6 (unbearable).


“An approval result must not exceed 3 — ‘Clearly noticeable but not yet unpleasant,’” says Sundqvist. The smell of the complete car is judged after it has been heated to 65C, to simulate a hot European summer day.


Audi created their six-strong “Nose Team” in 1985 to ensure that the wood for your dash and the bull hides for your seats smell great, and testing is vigorous. Leather is chopped into samples that are put in jars and heated to 80C, then graded on odour by each professional sniffer.


The Audi Nose team analyses more than 500 different components from the interior of each model separately, as well as the scent of the complete car.


But while there are some whose job it is to remove smells, others are focussed on creating scents to match or enhance your mood. Citroen offers nine aromas in their C3 and C4 ranges.


You can slot cartridges into the diffuser that will subtly infuse your cabin with an anti-tobacco odour-eater (very French) to one that can perk you up.

 
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