What is that smell? When your car smells like burning oil, it’s unnerving. Not only does it mean there is a problem, the odor is downright unpleasant. Fortunately, most of the reasons behind the burning oil smell are correctable with or without a mechanic. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the reasons why your car smells like burning oil.

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What Does Burning Oil Smell Like?

The smell of burning engine oil in a car can be quite distinct and noticeable. It’s often described as a pungent and acrid odor, with a sharp and chemical-like quality that can be unpleasant to inhale. The scent is typically strongest around the engine compartment, but it can also waft into the cabin of the car through the air conditioning or heating vents.

The aroma of burning oil can be similar to that of burning rubber or plastic but with a distinct oily undertone. It’s a complex odor. You will find that it varies depending on the type of oil being burned. Plus, the worse the engine damage, the more stinky it gets. In some cases, the smell may be more sweet and slightly burnt. Other instances may find the oil to be more acrid and foul.

Burning engine oil is usually a sign of a problem within the engine, such as a leak or faulty component. If left unaddressed, burning oil can cause serious damage to the engine and reduce the car’s performance and fuel efficiency. It’s important to identify the source of the problem and have it repaired as soon as possible to avoid further damage and keep the car running smoothly.

This video will help explain some common car smells and what they mean, including burning oil:

Why Does My Car Smell Like Burning Oil?

Now that you know that burning oil is sharp, acrid, and slightly sweet, here are some instances where you may smell it in or around your vehicle:

Oil Leaks

One of the most common reasons for a burning oil smell is an oil leak. Oil leaks can occur from a variety of locations within the engine, including the valve cover gasket, oil pan gasket, and front or rear crankshaft seal. When oil leaks onto hot engine parts, it can burn and produce a strong and noticeable smell. In addition to the smell, oil leaks can also cause damage to the engine by reducing oil levels. Friction and heat may also increase dramatically. As such, you have to rule this issue out right away or have repairs done as soon as possible.

Overfilled Oil

If you recently changed your oil, it may be the reason you are smelling burning oil. Check the oil level on the dipstick. Should the oil level be above the maximum fill line, you have an answer. Overfilling the oil level can cause the oil to foam and circulate improperly, which can lead to the oil being burned by the engine. This can result in a burning oil smell and may cause damage to the engine.

Fortunately, you can correct an overfilled oil reservoir on your own. Check out our article, “What Happens If I Overfill My Oil?” for all the answers you need.

Clogged or Dirty Engine Parts

When in use, your engine is exposed to dirt, grime, and sludge. Not just from the environment, but also as a by-product of functioning. Clogged or dirty engine parts, such as the PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) valve or air filter, can cause oil to build up in the engine and burn. This results in a burning oil smell. The PCV valve is responsible for regulating the pressure inside the engine and preventing oil from being forced out of seals and gaskets.

A clogged or dirty PCV valve can cause oil to build up in the engine, leading to burning oil smells. A dirty air filter can also cause oil to build up in the engine. When clogged, it restricts airflow and can cause the engine to work harder than it needs to.

Worn Engine Parts

There are many parts of the engine, including valve guides, valve seals, and piston rings that are susceptible to wear and tear. When these things begin breaking down, they may allow oil to seep into the combustion chamber and burn, producing a burning oil smell. This can be caused by normal wear and tear over time. Or, it may be a result of poor maintenance, such as infrequent oil changes. Worn engine parts can also lead to reduced engine performance and fuel efficiency.

Turbocharger Issues

If your car is equipped with a turbocharger, it may be time to take a look at it.  A faulty turbocharger can cause oil to leak into the exhaust system and burn, producing a burning oil smell. The turbocharger is responsible for increasing the amount of air that flows into the engine, which can cause increased pressure and heat. If the turbocharger is damaged or not functioning properly, it can cause oil to leak into the exhaust system, where it can burn and produce a strong odor.

Can a Transmission Leak Smell Like Burning Oil?

Yes, you may smell burning oil if your car has a transmission leak. In fact, the two can be easily confused. If you smell burning oil but it doesn’t seem to be caused by any of the reasons listed above, you may want to consider your transmission.

If you are burning transmission fluid, it could be a sign that your transmission is overheating. This is not a scenario that you want to deal with, as an overheating transmission often means serious and expensive problems.

Final Thoughts on the Car Smelling Like Burning Oil

If you smell anything off, including burning oil, you must take action. Burning oil could mean many things. But it is a surefire sign that you do not want to go on any long road trips without speaking to an automotive professional first. Taking action as soon as something goes wrong is essential to maintaining the condition of your vehicle.


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