New Car Smell Becomes NEUtral Car Smell April 22 2016

"How do I give my car that new-car smell?"

As Gizmodo's Rachel Swaby can't, but the clearest why comes from Toyota's own Janise Shard who said,

"The smell is mostly organic compounds in the vehicle off-gassing. Anything that is vinyl or plastic—the foam lamination on the seat surface, the plastic on the dash or on the door panel—it's the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) coming out of them that causes that smell."

"But my car is 10 years old!"

Maybe we can sell you on NEUtral car smell instead - what's left after a thorough cleaning and decontamination (detailing technicians love that word).  If you've had your car for a while, it's likely that the materials have finished off-gassing, and now you're left with a stale odor reminiscent of your last camping trip and takeout.

Why? The funk in your carpet and upholstery is causing that odor as microscopic particles decay.  You will need to shampoo and scrub the offensive filth out.  After, your car will smell fresh, like nothing at all, or like the perfumes in your cleaner.

This is your next step after vacuuming.  At Klaren, we like to decontaminate the interior using steam, or odorless cleaners (in that order).  Since you probably don't have a steamer dedicated for automotive use, we'll stick with the latter.  You can also use fabric-safe all purpose cleaner (APC), a dilution of Woolite and water (1 part Woolite to 6 parts water, recommended by Recaro and professional detailers), or antimicrobial enzyme cleaners.

Prep: You will need...

  • An assortment of carpet/upholstery brushes with nylon or natural bristles
  • An old toothbrush (for nooks and crannies).
  • Your favorite fabric cleaner (foaming, non-foaming, perfumed, odorless...)
  • Leather / vinyl cleaner
  • Leather / vinyl / plastic protectant (ex: 303 Aerospace Protectant)
  • Assorted microfiber or cotton towels

Note: Once you use a microfiber towel for interior cleaning, do not use it on the car's paint.

Bonus: Wet/dry shop vacuum or portable carpet cleaner (ex: Bissell Little Green / Spot Clean)

Pro tips: Work in sections within arm's reach.  For example, when working on the rear bench or carpet, I divide it into thirds -- left, center, and right passenger seat.  Always read the instructions on your cleaners completely.  The manufacturer didn't include them by accident. If you have never used a product before, check for color fastness by testing them in an inconspicuous area before using it on the whole interior.

Step 1: Mist the area with your cleaner and wipe or scrub.  Nylon-bristle brushes will be the most aggressive, followed by natural bristle brushes, cotton towels, and microfiber towels. 

"Should I scrub in circles, or scrub back and forth?"  Either is fine, as long as you do not damage the fabric, and you're able to remove all of the filth. 

This process works for all fabrics, carpet, and upholstery.  Just take your time, patiently cleaning the entire interior.  Don't miss a spot.  Hard-to-reach areas are catch-alls for dirt and often the worst offenders.  They require your attention like anything else.  Slide seats forward, or backward.  Tilt the seat backs.  Do whatever is necessary.  Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.

Step 2: Blot, wipe, or scrub the section with a cotton or microfiber towel to absorb moisture and dirt.  We recommend light-colored towels, so you can inspect as you go.  It's the white glove test of interior cleaning.  You will need more than one.  If your towel comes up stained, repeat steps 1 and 2.

Bonus: Lucky folks with a wet vacuum, extractor, or carpet cleaner can speed up this step by sucking the filth away, but this doesn't exempt you from the light towel test.

Step 3: Seal leather, plastic, and vinyl surfaces using a suitable product.  303 Aerospace Protectant is exceptional for its effectiveness and versatility.  Its ability to hydrate and protect from sun damage while leaving a factory-fresh appearance is second to none!  Mist your product onto a towel or foam applicator and massage it into the surface.  Buff it off with a clean, dry towel.

Note: Applying leather/vinyl protectant to steering wheels isn't always advised because it makes the wheel slippery.  If you insist, do not apply protectant liberally. Ensure that it is buffed off completely.  Be careful, and grip the steering wheel before moving the car to test.

That's it!  Inspect your work.  Did you make sure to clean the vents and the dashboard?  What about the rear shelf? Take your time, be thorough, and have fun!