Operation Un-stink: Smelly Hyundai gets the lemon law treatment

Matthew Fink

Have you ever found yourself desperately trying to get the putrid smell of urine and raw chicken out of a car, with no luck? Or did you recently purchase a new vehicle that smells like gym socks and the manufacture won’t help? If so, keep reading! I’ll explain how to get those (plus more normal smells) out of a car and even when to get the Better Business Bureau involved if the stink won’t go away.

Detailing cars for 15+ years has put me in some stinky situations. Literally. I have a simple process I follow to get a vehicle smelling great. First, let me tell you about the worst car I’ve ever detailed.

Truthfully, the car wasn’t all that dirty, but it had a stench that caused my eyes to burn and had breakfast looking for a way out of my stomach. A young woman called to have her Corolla detailed and mentioned, “the car kind of smells.” No big deal, I thought, until I opened the door on that 90-degree day and was punched in the mouth with a smell that made my eyes feel like they were on fire.

Conveniently, the owner had quickly taken off before I could tell her she couldn’t pay me enough to work on that putrid turd. Catching her by phone, she revealed she had been the victim of a frat boy prank. An ex-boyfriend and friends saw her car at a party and found it unlocked. Powered by liquid courage no doubt, they decided it was a good idea to get back at her for dumping him by having the group of frat brothers pee all over the interior of her car. And when that didn’t offer enough potential for a lifetime of regret, they decided to get raw chicken from the fridge and shred it up and hide it under the seats.

The one thing they didn’t do, surprisingly, was make a pact to take that stupid prank to the grave. The following week, the intense guilt pushed her ex to call and admit what he had done. First off, apparently you need to lock your doors if parked near frat houses. Secondly, please tell a detailer ahead of time if they will be working with raw chicken, which by that point had turned black after sitting under the seats for two weeks in summer heat.

I’ll give the jerk some credit, he at least covered my bill.  I can’t think of a more romantic gesture than paying someone to remove your pee from your ex-girlfriend’s car seats, so I can only assume that worked to win her back. I wonder what ever happened to those crazy kids?

Whether your car smells from misguided pranks, a motion sick child or pet, or just a musty old interior, try these three simple steps.

Step 1: Remove the item causing the smell

This means vacuuming every nook and cranny; don’t risk leaving any of the offending item behind. Grab a small brush (even an old toothbrush works) to lead the vacuum and get stuff out of tight areas.

If you have an extractor, it can be very helpful here, especially if the offending item is a liquid. The Tacoma (pictured below) that I just cleaned had two gallons of industrial liquid weed killer spilled on the floor, making it dangerous to drive because of the fumes.

Car Odor Treatment wet vaccuming
Matthew Fink

If you are unsure where the smell is coming from, take the time to really look around (especially around kid’s seats). Things I’ve found include moisture under the floor mats, mold growing on the cabin air filter, months-old half-full baby bottles, and a year-old box of French fries.

For vacuums, I like the Ridgid four-gallon 6-hp wet/dry with blower shop vac. It costs about $100 and performs like vacuums much pricier.

Car Odor Treatment vacuum
Matthew Fink

For a nice small personal extractor, I recommend the Hoover Spotless Portable Carpet Cleaner & Upholstery Spot Clearer, which is also around $100.

Car Odor Treatment wet vacuum
Matthew Fink

Step 2: Clean the area

I have always relied on Meguiar’s All-Purpose Cleaner for most interior cleaning, which is unfortunately not available retail. Have no fear, my car cleaning friends, Meguiar’s recently came to the rescue with a new retail product that rivals their classic detailer-specific version, and I love it. The Citrus Power Cleaning Plus has a very faint citrus smell, but huge cleaning power. Go get a bottle now; there are countless uses from carpet to leather to engine bays.

Car Odor Treatment detail chemical and rags
You need a bottle of this in your garage. Matthew Fink

Spray, scrub with a stiff bristle brush, and then wipe with an old towel. Repeat as needed. You really need to rub the affected area a lot with towels to keep pulling as much stuff out as possible. On the Tacoma, the extractor got most of the liquid out, but spraying with Citrus Power Cleaner and rubbing with towels is what finished it off. Witnessing it get rid of those fumes won me over for good on this new Meguiar’s product.

Step 3: Neutralize the odor

Make sure the product you’re using actually neutralizes the odor, not just masks it like a fragrance (hint, anything shaped like a tree or given out free at the car wash is just a fragrance). I like the Zep Air and Fabric Odor Eliminator here. But for really bad smells, particularly smoke, I use a product called Nok Out, which I can only find for sale on Amazon. (Trust me, it’s worth it.)

After dosing the area where the smell is coming from, now you need to think about the rest of the vehicle. If the smell has been there long, it has probably been absorbed into the carpet, seats, headliner, and even the vents. The best way to remove it is to use an odor-eliminating fogger. I believe this is the most important step if you want to permanently remove the smell, and it’s the only way to get into the HVAC system. I have been trusting the Meguiar’s Whole Car Air Re-Fresher Odor Eliminator Mist for years.

Car Odor Treatment odor bomb
As good as it smells, do not breathe this in. Matthew Fink

It’s sold everywhere and will be the best $7 you’ve ever spent (on a car odor product … that is like a fog … that you bought today). Don’t be intimidated; the instructions are simple. OK fine, here is what you do: With the car running and A/C on recirculate, place the can in the middle of the car, press the trigger, close the doors, and go get a snack while it does all the work for the next 15 minutes.

For almost all situations, these simple steps will get your car smelling great. However, if you have a significant smell like cigarette smoke, there are a couple additional steps that can be used. Try sprinkling baking soda where the smell is coming from and rub it into the fabric/carpet. Wait at least an hour and then vacuum it up. Another option is an ozone generator machine that uses electrical current and oxygen to break down odors and sterilize germs, but that is not something most of us own.

What if you bought a brand-new car that smells from day one? A customer recently reached out for help with his nine-month-old Hyundai Palisade. He’s man who has traditionally purchased higher-end cars but decided to try the Hyundai and surprisingly loved it. And I agree, the Palisade is a phenomenal car, especially for the price.

Hyundai exterior closed windows
Matthew Fink

Except for one thing. His Palisade smells like a locker room. He took it back to the Hyundai dealer four times for the smell, but they never could fix it. He tried to identify where the smell was coming from and figured out it was the headrests. The dealer offered to replace them with others from the lot, but the smell remained. Nine months and 11,000 miles later, he couldn’t take it anymore and called me. Heat made the problem worse and everything he had tried failed to work. Looking up the issue, I found that other Palisade owners are experiencing the same thing.

Hyundai even released a technical service bulletin about the smell and shared these instructions with its service centers about how to mitigate the smelly Palisades that keep returning to the dealerships:

1. Remove the headrests and spray the inside with Febreze while squeezing the headrest so it absorbs more.

2. Spray Febreze into the headrest mounting holes on each seat and then reinstall the headrests. If that doesn’t work, then…

3. Literally to just start over. But this time use Zep Odor Eliminator and see if that works.

The service bulletins then says, “If the odor persists after using two different odor eliminator products, contact Techline for further assistance. The service procedure is now complete.”

Huh? That’s it? I was shocked but went to work.

Research shows the odor seems to only impact black and beige interiors of Palisade Limited with the Nappa leather. Cars.com had its long-term test Palisade experience the same issue and even had the car at the dealer for six weeks while trying to figure out what was going on. Hyundai eventually said the odor was caused by a flaw in the manufacturing process in certain colors of the imitation leather. It apparently uses different suppliers for different parts and colors of the leather and claims it figured out what was making the stank. Hyundai now says it has modified the manufacturing process, which should prevent the problem in new models.

That doesn’t really help my customer though. The first time he went to the dealer he was told to “wait it out,” because new-car smells customarily fade. Unfortunately, this smell only worsened with time. I followed Hyundai’s instructions, AND added a third odor eliminating product,

Car Odor Treatment headrests and supplies
Matthew Fink

AND shampooed and conditioned all the carpet, plastic, and leather in the vehicle.

Car Odor Treatment drill brush detail
Matthew Fink

AND even let off a trusty Meguiar’s Whole Car Air Re-Fresher Odor Eliminator Mist.

Car Odor Treatment air freshener bomb
Matthew Fink

Most of you can probably guess what I’m about to say …  a few days later the smell returned. With a vengeance. But I bet most of you won’t guess what happened next.

Car Odor Treatment Hyundai rear seats
Matthew Fink

Another trip to the local Hyundai dealer, armed with info that we had followed the official instructions plus a lot more. My client was told there was nothing else that could be done.  Sure, they wanted to help, but their hands were tied. So, they actually suggested he take his complaint to the Better Business Bureau.

I couldn’t believe it when my client shared that his case had gone to arbitration and … he won! He took the Palisade back to the dealer and was given a check for the full amount of his purchase, plus all interest paid. Although he was tempted to buy another Palisade with this check in his pocket, instead he left Hyundai … but didn’t go far. He didn’t even leave the parking lot; he bought a Genesis GV80. He says it is by far his favorite car ever. I love a happy ending.

What about you? Any tips on getting smells out or gross cars that you have cleaned? Does anyone else have another successful story about winning an arbitration against a manufacture?

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    Good old vinegar is a terrific odor eliminator—mix with a little water in a sprayer and good to go. also have poured it down the cracks of seats and other impossible to reach places to remove the lovely odor from milk that the kids spilled weeks before and ripened nicely in the hot sun.

    Had a car come in that the previous driver had blown his brains out with a shot gun. The contents of his brain had been hosed out but the smell remained. The smell definitely did turn your stomach. Took a week plus to disperse but the best remover was to burn a bit of cotton and keep the smoke inside the cabin. It adsorbed the smell after several repeats.

    Very fine helpful information regarding the barrage of product available and proper simple instructions written with sensible direction.

    Surely you’ve run into the decades long Mercedes-Benz issue of smell of mildew from the AC vents… Local dealers are stumped as to a fix, even with the class action recall quietly unveiled…

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