You can often tell there’s something wrong with your car by a change in how it handles or how it sounds. One of the most overlooked methods to diagnose a problem is odor. Sometimes, when your car exhibits a smell that it didn’t before, you’re seeing (or in this case, smelling) evidence of a mechanical problem. Your nose isn’t a complete substitute for proper diagnostics, but often, odors can give you valuable insight into what’s going on in your car.

Have you ever been driving down the road, thought you smelled pancakes, but looked around you, only to find that there wasn’t a diner in sight? If so, you probably smelled an engine coolant leak. Often, you’ll notice this odor when your cooling system starts to seep or leak hot coolant. If you notice this, pull over and look for the leak. If you have a leaking hose, this is a good time to replace them all, as cooling hoses tend to age at the same rate. However, if you don’t find a leaking hose, look for a leak elsewhere in the system. A leaking radiator will cause the same odor. Any cooling leak is bound to get worse and if left unattended, can lead to a major rupture on the road.

What about other smells? If you smell gasoline, you very likely have a leaking gas tank, filler pipe, or fuel line. At any rate, this is also something you need to fix immediately. As gasoline is flammable, a gas leak left unattended means your car might go up in flames, which is a huge safety risk. If you notice a burning oil smell, that’s likely what’s happening. Older engines do tend to leak and drip oil. While this isn’t as immediate a safety risk as gasoline, this can also potentially lead to a fire. In addition, if your engine runs low on oil, it can seize. If you notice a burning oil smell, find the leak. If necessary, clean your engine and then look for leaks once the engine is dry and has been run again.

If it’s not engine oil, look for leaking power steering fluid, or anything that might be dripping onto a hot exhaust system or engine block. Sometimes, a cracked CV boot can cause grease to spray onto a hot exhaust pipe, once again, leading to an odor – in this case burning grease.

Bottom line, if your car suddenly smells different, take a moment to check things over. Often, this kind of early warning sign can help you avoid a breakdown.

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