Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

ODD CHEMICAL SMELL in my 2002 VW Cabrio when it sits, any ideas what it is and if it is dangerous?

I have a 2002 VW Cabrio GLX with only 40,000 miles - the car is in amazing shape as it is garaged and I have only had it serviced at the dealer.

I leave the car sometimes for a month at a time when I am not home in the garage, I have noticed when I dont drive my car for a few days or longer when I get in my car it has a strange smell, it is a chemical smell similar to nail polisher remover - is this something I should be worried about? I have never been able to replicate the smell for VW as when I get there the smell is gone and they cant find anything wrong with it. I have noticed the smell more and more lately and when I get in my car I have to open the windows to air it out as the smell is getting stronger - any thoughts on what this could be and if I should be worried?

Thank you for your help!

I don’t suppose it’s gasoline you’re smelling…that’s pretty unmistakable.

Do you smell this stuff only inside the car, or is it outside as well? I wonder if perhaps the A/C is leaking, though I’ll admit I have no idea what refrigerant would smell like, if it smells at all.

Thank you for the response but I am pretty sure that is not gas - the car only smells inside and only when the car sits for a long period in my garage (it used to be more than a month but now it smells if I dont use the car for a couple of days which is why I was worried it was getting worse) I cant really describe the smell its a chemical/sweet smell very odd but not pleasant at all!

I just had the car serviced at VW for my 40,000 mile service and they said there are no leaks and the car is in such great condition they said if I ever wanted to sell it they would buy it. My AC runs ice cold so I dont know if that rules out a refrigerant leak.

I guess the oddest thing is that the car doesnt smell all the time - just sometimes. I was away for 7 weeks and when I got home it didnt smell at all - but the smell is getting more frequent so I took it to VW - of course by the time I get to VW the smell is gone - they kept it over night and still no smell in the morning. My friend has a Jetta and she said her car always smells like melted crayons but my smell is more chemical - I just dont want it to make me sick or worse cause a fire if it is something dangerous so I am worried that VW is missing something.

My wifes 95 Taurus would have a musty odor from the heater if we had ran the ac the previous day.

The cure for this was to simply shut off the AC & turn the fan on high for about the last 2 miles before arriving home.

Apparently drying out the evaporator core with fresh air before shutting the car off was what solved the problem.

If this smell is only the day after you have used the AC try the above & see if it makes a difference.

BTW, some newer cars have a timer that runs the blower after engine shutoff.

If your VW has this disregard.

Oh I almost forgot I just passed my SMOG test dont know if that rules anything out?

Thanks for the reply but I dont run my AC often as I live right near the beach - only if I drive into the Valley and it does have a fan that runs after I shut the car off if I use the AC.

The smell is not musty it is a distinct chemical odor which is why I am worried - I dont know what could be causing this odd chemical smell or if it is harmful to me or dangerous if not fixed.

Your A/C wouldn’t be very cold if you had a significant refrigerant leak, so I’m guessing that’s not it.

My next thought would be coolant, which does have something of a sweet-chemical stench to it. Smelling it means there’s a leak somewhere, and the only place for coolant to leak inside a car is through the heater core. Perchance, do you ever hear gurgling/sloshing sounds coming from the dashboard area at any time, or is the floor under the glove compartment wet in the least?

Have a look at the coolant level in your radiator (check this ONLY when the engine is COLD) and your reservoir tank. If either of them are significantly low and you can’t see any leaks onto the ground, I’d bet you’re losing coolant out the heater core and that’s what you’re smelling.

Any chance you still have the sample paint that came with the car and the bottle is deteriorating? Check your car and remove anything that might be the source and see if it returns. Flat fix Starter fluid, window cleaner, handi wipes wd 40 etc. check the seat recesses too! Good luck.

Ok so I checked and the good news is that there is no dampness in my car at all under the dash or glove box - and I have never heard a sloshing or gurgling noise but the bad news is that I checked under my hood and my reservoir tank is a little below the min line - on my VW the reservoir is clear and it has a min and max line my level is about a quarter of an inch below the min line - which makes me nervous.

I never really looked at this before I usually check my oil but since I dont drive much I change my oil more than recommended however I have noticed that my dealer often does not fill up my other fluids mainly my windshield wiper fluid - are they supposed to be changing my coolant as well? I just assumed since I took it to the dealer it would be done right- so I dont know if this means its possible I have a leak in my heater core. I bought the Platinum VW Extended Warranty so I am praying that they cover the repair as I got laid off and cant afford an expensive repair.

Is there any other way to check for a leak that I should ask the dealer since they told me I dont have any leaks?? I guess it is possible it is a very small leak which is why they cant find it - my car does not overheat or run hot either but I want to take care of this before it causes any damage if there is a leak.

Thanks for the information, I am very grateful!!!

Thanks I looked and I dont have anything in my car itself (only in the trunk), I dont leave anything in the car as I dont want someone breaking it - the flat tire stuff in my trunk doesnt smell and is not leaking - but thanks for the thought.

Now that it is warm weather it might be a cause, try taking it all out of the trunk and see if it makes a difference.

Back up a sec…one-quarter of an inch below the min line isn’t something to worry about. If it was completely empty I’d be concerned, but since it’s not and there’s no dampness on the floor (and no gurgling, which would indicate air bubbles in the cooling system), I’d say the heater core is probably okay. That was just a guess based on your description of a “chemical/sweet smell”, and I can’t really think of any other automotive fluid that would be described that way. It’d sure be nice if I could get a whiff of this myself to make a better guess…

The coolant does need periodic replacement, but we’re talking once about every 30K miles. It’s not something you need to top off regularly…needing to do so would indicate a problem. In any case, at this point I’m not sure what else it could be. I doubt there’s anything actually wrong or needing repair based on what you’ve inspected.

Here’s something to try if you can possibly work it: park the car in a friend’s garage the next time it will be left sitting for days at a time, and see if the smell is still there. This will narrow down whether it’s the car that’s stinking things up, or something in your garage.

Ok thank you so much for your input - I really appreciate it! I am taking the car back to VW next week just to make sure but there is still no signs of a leak in or out of the car and of course the smell has been gone this whole weekend.

Ok so one person asked me “The other thing I can think of is that you have a leak in the hydraulic rams or hoses on the top motor. Have you checked the pump oil level?”

  • eecks does anyone know where I would check this? Yes I do have a power top and of course a huge nightmare if it stops working so I am now afraid to take it down if I have a leak coming from the top - I dont even know where to start looking as I cant find the info in my manual.

OK so I called VW and they explained where to check for the fluid and in the trunk and thank goodness it is near the max line so I dont have a leak there! YEAH! I give up I have no idea where the smell is coming from!

1/4" below the min line on the coolant reservior indicates you are losing coolant albeit slowly. It doesn’t take much atomized coolant to be noticeable to the human nose. Small pinholes in the heater core would release an atomized spray or drip into the tray until the system pressure dropped enough for it to stop. It has a sweet odor but not like nail polish remover (Acetone) IMO.

Here’s my suggestion: take the cap off the coolant expansion tank and put your nose close to the opening and smell it. Does it resemble the odor?

I finally figured out what the smell was! I had my car serviced at the dealer again - and they topped off the coolant - luckily it hasnt dropped at all since then but my battery totally died on me today - when the guy came to jump it he said my battery smelled and I needed to get a new one as it was bad - that was the smell! I dont understand how I just had my car serviced and they didnt tell me I needed a new battery! I didnt have any trouble with it but it I realized I have never changed it so it is the original battery when the guy asked me today. Just thought I would post in case anyone else has this issue.

I just assumed since I took it to the dealer it would be done right

Bad assumption. Dealers are no better (or worse)than independent mechanics, but they are almost always more expensive.

I hope the battery idea is right, but I am not all that sure of it.

Good Luck

It’s strange you did not describe the smell as “rotten eggs” as this is what batterys often smell like. I was sure your smell was going to be VOC’s.

The battery typically only smell when being charged and the VOC’s are a smell inside the car after it sits awhile.

The battery diagnosis doesn’t fit.