Burning smell in Forester

I recently moved to Pittsburgh where I constantly use my parking brake from Rochester, NY where I rarely ever used it. After I’ve moved to Pittsburgh (7 months after I’ve owned this 2004 Subaru Forester). After I drive for a significant amount of time (30+ minutes) and come off the freeway and stop or even slow down, the cabin of the car has a distinct, but faint burning smell. I am wondering if this could be the parking brake rubbing just slightly and when I slow down the smell stays in the cabin or if it is possible that the brakes are smelling (or something entirely different). Keep in mind that the smell doesn’t happen when I only take a short drive, which is often. Any help narrowing this down would be greatly appreciated. And of course, no I haven’t taken this into an auto mechanic yet.


With the now ‘rarely used’ parking brakes being used regularly after so many years, the cables may be a bit sticky and not completely releasing the parking brakes when your ready to go. The fact that you smell the odor worse when taking longer trips makes me think the parking brakes are dragging a bit, since the brakes get hotter the longer they drag.

It’s more likely you have a slight oil leak from somewhere and it’s seeping onto the exhaust on long trips.

If it’s the brakes (as Busted said, and a likely possibility), when you smell this, be brave, and get your nose closer to the wheels and see if they smell, too. You can also feel the hub for temperature. Be careful not to burn your hand, as it could be very hot. The rear should be no hotter than the front, and should actually be cooler, as the brakes do less work on the back.

If oil is seeping onto your exhaust, you should be able to find some evidence. There will be a dark mark where it’s burning, and most likely some smoke…although a very small leak will also have very little smoke. You’ll have to do some climbing under it to find this evidence if it’s slight.


There’s not enough info known to make much of a guess but barring any dragging brake smell it could be due to a coolant and/or oil leak from a head gasket, cam seal, etc.
Those problems are definitely not rare ones.

I’d get it on the rack and look the engine over closely for any leaks no matter how slight and the wheels can be checked for a dragging brake at that time.

You never described the smell - which is how you can remain with anything from dragging brake to coolant dripping on the exhaust. Can you do something to try to explain what it smells like? A little sweet maybe? Burning plastic or rubber? Overheated brake smell can sometimes be described as fishy. See what you can do about describing the smell.

While I agree with most of what’s been said, I have to ask if your car is equipped with a turbo charger or not. If the wheels/brakes check out fine, then I’d suspect the turbo as the next likely candidate

Thanks all for the suggestions. To describe the smell a bit more, it does smell like burning carpet (imagining getting string stuck in a vacuum cleaner), not quite like burning rubber though. I wouldn’t describe it as fishy.
I do not have a turbo, so that’s out.
The oil level does not budge even a millimeter between when I fill it up after an oil change and 4000 miles later, plus when I bought the car (12,000 miles ago) I had the mechanic put it up on the lift and there wasn’t any signs of leakage from the gaskets or anywhere else that was visible from below.
I know I’m leading the answer towards the parking brakes, but I’m happy to hear any other suggestions. I will check the brakes and try to closer identify the region of the smell after the next road trip.

I had a similar smell in an old Oldsmobile and I found that the floor pan had rusted through just above the catalytic converter. The heat from the catalytic converter was starting to scortch the carpet. Although your vehicle seems too new to have this problem, you may want to pull up the floor covering above the catalytic converter and check for rustout of the floor board.

Those vehicles are known for leaking valve cover gaskets…is it possible that some oil is finding its way down to the exhaust headers…look under your vehicles engine and look at the pipes coming out of the head…DO you see a trail of oil leading to the pipes? If so you just found it…

Shouldn’t be the brakes…you SHOULD know the smell of burning brakes…it smells EXTREMELY distinct and CANNOT be confused with any other item. But maybe you dont know the smell…hard for me to fix that via the internet… If you suspect the brakes…then after your drive and when you smell the smell…FEEL your back wheels…Are they warm? OR HOT? Sniff the REAR wheel area…is the smell there?