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2001 Toyota RAV4 - Check Engine Light, Evap Code 0440 - Bad Smell

Dear CarTalk Community:
Last fall, my mentor passed away and I was gifted a 2001 Toyota RAV4. The car has about $28K miles on it. She mostly drove it in the city hence such low mileage. Anyway, once I got the title and reg settled, I put a new battery in it because it sat for months. Car ran fine. But as winter droned on I noticed that when the car turned on (particularly after sitting overnight in the cold), that there was an awful smell both in and out of the car. I have not owned a car in many years, but the best way I can described the smell is that it reminded me of paint thinner, or some of kind of chemical. For whatever reason the smell seemed to clear up on its own so I had not noticed during this spring season. However about 2 weeks ago, the check engine light came on and that paint-thinner smell is evident again. Took the car to my local mechanic (JP Auto) in Jamaica Plain and they did a diagnose via their computer and got the 0440 evap code (they also checked the gas cap, and it seemed to be fine). The mechanic said the problem was not worth fixing because repairs would cost $700 and this sort of problem does not impact the engine or operation of the car. The mechanic reset the system so that the check engine would go off. About a week later the light came back on and of course that smell is still present. Not sure at this point if the car would pass inspection in the fall because MA has emissions standards. In any case, it seems like the car should be brought back in for a fuller review to figure out what is going on. Just not sure whether this $700 figure or really what to expect - any insight that folks can provide would be very much appreciated.

If the Check Engine light is on when you go for the states emission testing, the vehicle fails the test right-then-and-there.

You need to get it fixed.


$700.00 repair price may not be out of line. You could not buy this for that amount. Did they even say what needed to be fixed. My feeling is it is second opinion time.

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Thanks so much - that’s exactly why I was puzzled that he said it was not worth it to repair. October is still months away, but I want to be able to drive my car this summer without worrying about that light and smell.

Second opinion time makes sense. Mechanic pointed to what I believe was the vapor pressure sensor. Any recommendations on where to take for a second opinion?

If I remember correctly, I believe he said valves were not closing efficiently and odorless fumes were being released. Though I am not sure what he thinks “odorless” is because this is not it.

What is really puzzling to me is that your mechanic seems to be unaware of how the state inspection process actually works in your state. As Tester stated, if the Check Engine Light is lit up when you arrive at the inspection station, it is game over–immediately–with nothing further done at that visit until you remedy the problem that caused the CEL to be lit-up.

I don’t know whether or not this will cause you to fail your emissions testing in your state, but it definitely would mean a “fail” in California. The code means there’s something wrong with the fuel tank evap system, and gasoline fumes are being emitted. That’s bad for the environment and bad for you, b/c it will reduce your mpg, and it doesn’t smell good either. No sense paying good money to fill your tank, then letting it evaporate like that. I concur with the advice above, emissions test or not, get it fixed.

It’s probably not an emergency situation, maybe that was the message your mechanic was trying to convey.

Most of us think the gas is in the tank and that is where it stays until the engine sucks it in. But there are gasoline fumes in the tank too above the level of the gasoline liquid. There’s a complicated system that holds them in, preventing them from venting to the atmosphere, & eventually routes those fumes into the engine to be burned in due course. Various valves are involved, along with the charcoal canister. And lengths of tubing. Any of which could spring a leak. Shops are presented with the problem all the time, it is a very common thing reported here, so you should have no problem finding a shop who can diagnose and fix it for you. Then you’ll help the environment and save yourself some refueling money too. Not to mention the help it will bring for your nose. Find a personally recommended inde shop who specializes in Toyotas or at least Asian cars and schedule the work…

I agree that this is the time for a second opinion. I think your mechanic does not know how to diagnose and fix this…so he would rather send you away hoping you will not return.
Better to tackle this problem now than when it’s time for your inspection. Too many people wait until the inspection and then they are in crunch time to fix it before your plates expire.

I’d like to know if you always smell this odor…no matter how much gas is in the tank.
One thing that many people do wrong is to keep filling more fuel into the tank after the gas pump shuts off. This is bad for the evap system and floods the charcoal canister. With raw gas in the canister, the charcoal cannot absorb the fumes.

The other thing I was wondering about; If this smell is only present when the tank is over half full, the seal at the top of the gas tank may be cracked from age. This seal is installed with the fuel pump and is a ring about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. With age this rubber seal may have cracked and a small amount of raw gasoline seeps out and pools at the top of the tank. Once enough gas is used up the seeping stops and once evaporated, the odor disappears until you fill up again.



Hi Yosemite, George San Jose, VCDriver. Hope you had a good weekend.

Dear Yosemite, GeorgeSanJose and VDCdriver. Hope you had a good weekend.

Many thanks for all these details! This is much needed advice. Now I feel like I have some info to really work pinpoint the issues.

OK, so regarding the fuel tank/evap: when is the odor present or not, MPG, environmental impact…

I was definitely worried about the environmental impact, we compost, recycle, garden and try not to use household products that are problematic at my house. I also have littles ones who have asthma so I felt guilty driving around with them and just ignoring the problem.

I also did notice that after filling up and doing regular driving, errands on a Saturday afternoon and such, that the tank went down about a quarter of the way, which annoyed me since I hadn’t gone very far. The smell seems to be present usually when I initially turn on the car but then dissipates after driving. So a leak in the tubing, gas tank or charcoal canister makes sense. I will make more notes about the mileage and the smell going forward so that I have good details when I get take to another shop. I also usually go to a full service gas station (gas stations in my neighborhood only offer full service) not sure if they are continuing to pump gas into the tank even through the pump has been shut off, but that’s good for me to be aware of as well.

Regarding the inspections test: Very much agree, VDCdriver! He was completely nonplussed about the CEL and never mentioned emissions test issues or inspection diagnostics even though his shop is where I got my inspection last October. Truly baffling!

An Update:

The 2001-2003 Toyota RaV 4 is notorious for ECM issues and there is a recall notice that is still in place for this model in which case, I am eligible for it, but it means I need to bring to the dealer to have them replace it.

In any case, with all this info, now I am better prepared to address this problem not to mention being more aware of the particular issues with this model before going to the dealer.

Auto gas gauges are not laboratory-grade measuring devices, and there are two factors to consider when you look at the gas gauge:

That gauge offers an approximation of the amount of gas in your tank, rather than an exact amount, and as a result, the only accurate way to measure gas mileage is to divide the number of miles driven by the number of gallons of gas needed to refill the tank. Doing this over a series of fill-ups is the best way to get an accurate idea of your actual gas mileage.

Most gas gauges do not “drop” in a linear fashion. Some tend to stay on full for a very long time, and then suddenly drop to the 3/4 mark. Others “drop” very fast, and then the rate at which the reading drops may not be as fast as it was initially.

No two cars have gas gauges that act exactly the same, and you should not compare the performance of other cars’ gas gauges to the one that you currently own.

Great will keep that in mind. I have only had the car 7 months, so I’m learning little by little about what will work best for it.

It seems the mechanic doesn’t see much value in your vehicle, do you expect this vehicle to last until the next inspection is required?

What was the diagnoses that cost $700 to repair? Common fuel vapor leaks on Toyota vehicles 2001-2005 that I see are due to a cracked fuel tank over-fill check valve. The fuel tank must be removed to replace this, several hours of labor.

Good detective work there OP. I did a little research & see some info on that recall myself. And it seems to pertains to P0440, so that may indeed be the problem. SSC601 issued 12/2006. You might can see the actual bulletin language if you google that. From what I can tell, the ECM only needs to be reprogrammed, not replaced. I’d be sort of surpised it hasn’t already been done tho, by a prior owner. Toyota will know for sure, as they store that kind of customer-car recall info in their service databases.