How Nissan creates its signature ‘new car smell’

People love that “new car smell.” For most cars and SUVs, it’s a mixture of plastics, stain resistant fabrics and maybe some actual leather, as well. It’s a complex olfactory chorus of odors that elicits an emotional response. At car companies like Nissan there are professionals part of whose job is to sniff carefully and ensure every new car has the that unique new car smell.

So many demands are made on materials used inside of a car — they have to last for years, must be easily cleanable, withstand extreme temperatures, and so on — that expecting them to also smell nice is a lot to ask. But these difficult demands are why carmakers employ people like Tori Keerl, a materials engineer at Nissan’s technical center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. She oversees a team of odor experts who carefully analyze the smells of everything that goes inside of vehicles like the Nissan Pathfinder SUV and Frontier pickup. I met her on the show floor of the New York Auto Show to talk about smells and to put my own nose to the test.

Keerl was originally hired as a plastics materials engineer, but, partly because plastics make up the majority of materials inside of a non-luxury vehicle, she was soon given overall responsibility for the way Nissan vehicles smell inside. “Every time we launch a vehicle, we have to test the odor of it,” she said.

As a new model is being developed, Keerl and her team sniff test individual vehicle parts, such as steering wheels, seat cushions and visors, before they are put into the vehicle to make sure they have a pleasant — or at least inoffensive — odor.