How car scent technology is taking over

Jennifer Barton 14 July 2021

In built car scents are taking over, here's why 

Earlier this year, Mercedes announced the launch of its latest all-electric vehicle, the EQS, dubbed “the first electric vehicle in the luxury class.” Designed to impress on all fronts, the vehicle boasts over 40 new inventions, but it wasn’t the car’s aerodynamic design, electric efficiency or ultra-intelligence (the vehicle learns from its driver thanks to AI) that captured my attention. 

No, it was because the car has its own bespoke fragrance: No. 6 MOOD Linen, a scent composed just for this vehicle. The name even has a Chanel No. 5-esque origin story: “it bears the number 6 because the first electric cars were added to the model range in 1906 with ‘Mercédès Electrique’ vehicles,” reads a company statement. The EQS’ scent captures “the green note of a fig lying on a piece of linen,” so when you enter the car, you’ll be greeted by the subtle aroma of a fig tree in the breeze.

"When you enter the car, you’ll be greeted by the subtle aroma of a fig tree in the breeze"

Mercedes eqs model

The new Mercedes EQS

Mercedes is no stranger to scenting cars: its AIR BALANCE packages in series like the S-class have given drivers the choice of a range of scents for years, operating via some glove-compartment gadgetry that allows the driver to control the fragrance through the A/C vents and choose different intensities (the fragrance shuts off after a matter of minutes so as not to get into the fabric of the car). 

The scent of a car is central to its appeal: if a car becomes malodorous, it’s constantly unpleasant to be in (there’s an entire Seinfeld episode dedicated to this), while “new car smell” has been so mythologised that you can even purchase a Little Trees “New Car” scent Air Freshener to give your vehicle that clean, fresh leather-and-polish-smell we’ve been trained to love.

For anyone dubious about the impact of smell on our emotional states, scientific evidence regularly backs up the power that scents can have on people. Lavender really is relaxing; odours can affect our moods.

The sense of smell and where emotion and memories are processed and also where associations take place in the brain is all part of the same neural hardware. So unlike any of our other senses, the sense of smell has the ability to instantly trigger the sort of deep visceral emotional associations, unlike any other sense,” explains Rachel S. Herz, Ph.D, a neuroscientist and expert on the psychological science of smell and the author of The Scent of Desire. This can work both ways, triggering both positive and negative recollections depending on your initial experience of a particular smell. 

Car diffuser

The White Company's car diffusers

You don’t need to own a Mercedes to benefit from the slew of car fragrances available on the market these days. Much like home fragrance sales surged during the pandemic, cars seem to have become extensions of that personal home space. These latest luxury diffusers are a far cry from those swinging cardboard trees, and are suddenly available from all of our favourite brands: The White Company’s car diffusers (£15) come as a plug-in stick; just add a few drops of essential oil into the aluminium casing. Jo Malone now offers car diffuser sets (£73) featuring signature scents like Lime, Basil & Mandarin, while Diptyque’s intoxicating Baies (£79) scented cartridge slots into a metal, grille-like diffuser you plug into the air vent. As an alternative to plastic or metal, luxurious leather versions are also available: Acqua di Parma’s diffuser (£95) is made with Poltrona Frau leather; it’s a car diffuser and a design object in its own right. 

Just like home fragrance diffusers that make an interiors statement, many of these car diffusers are visually appealing, tactile objects: L’Original London’s orb-shaped diffusers (£39.90), in an array of metallic finishes like rose gold and galaxy silver, double up as fiddle objects you can throw in a handbag and sniff when you’re out and about. 

While these various car diffusers may differ in style, materials and scents available, most work in a similar way: you plug them into the car’s air vents and they emit a light fragrance when the air-con or heating is turned on. You can have multiple different ones plugged into various vents at once to combine scents.

"You can have multiple different ones plugged into various vents at once to combine scents"

Charabanc, co-founded by Carrie Hindmarsh and Barbara Behan, is an innovator in this space, with luxury car fragrance diffusers (£145) made of hand-spun metal pomanders, finished with artisan-moulded leather, all entirely handcrafted. The diffuser is the precise diameter to fit in your cup holder, and it can also be displayed on the rearview mirror or attached to the AC unit with a magnetic metal clip.

“Historically, the scents of the car were air fresheners. So they were about masking nasty smells, and we wanted to create a market which was about luxury car fragrance, not car freshener. Because you know when you put lovely fragrance in your home, you're often doing it from a neutral palette to enhance it rather than to mask,” explains Hindmarsh.

Instead of opting for scents to make passengers feel a certain way, the founders took inspiration from iconic car journeys to develop complex fragrances in much the same way you would create a fine luxury fragrance. There are notes of wood and leather in each fragrance to evoke the car’s interior.

Carrie Hindmarsh and Barbara Behan

Charrabanc co-founders Carrie Hindmarsh and Barbara Behan

Hindmarsh compares Charabanc’s fragrances to really good wine: “The way it delivers is quite like a journey, you’ll almost catch different elements of the scent at different times.”

Charabanc is as much designed for the mum on the school run as the retro sports car aficionado who embarks on a round-the-world car trip, enjoying each different scent in the location that inspired it. Hindmarsh and Behan have taken pains to ensure it’s plastic-free, sustainable and built to last and cherish rather than be disposed of (the fragrance refills typically last three months), down to the recycled, recyclable packaging. This is an objet d’art to cherish and enjoy as well as smell.

While there is something lovely about turning your car interior into an olfactory experience, these car scents can have their drawbacks, particularly if they’re built into the vehicle itself: you may start to feel you can’t smell them enough (Herz warns we can become habituated to scents which start to lose their power). Alternatively, a particular smell might end up everywhere - our car’s seats, our clothes, our bodies - when we don’t want it to.

"We’re fairly confident car fragrances are here to stay - so perhaps it’s not about the scent, but where the idea of it can take us"

“Where I think it could have more potential benefit is if the car can detect that you’re drowsy and/or meandering on the road, that then it sprays something at you that could be more alerting, specifically something that you feel,” Herz says.

We’re fairly confident car fragrances are here to stay - so perhaps it’s not about the scent, but where the idea of it can take us: the mountains, the beach, our favourite park on the planet. Such is the evocative power of fragrance, after all.

“We needed to produce something that would sit as happily in a Tesla as it would in an old E type. You know you'll experience different scents as you go along your journey, which might be the most dull of journeys. It might be a commute, it might be the school run, but it's really nice to kind of be taken to these other places,” says Hindmarsh.

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