Car shoppers in the U.S. often dip into new cars at dealer showrooms and deeply inhale “that new car smell,” as it’s affectionately known. Sure, a lot of the scent is the lingering odor from a mixture of industrial materials, but to many Americans the aroma of a brand new car is as sweet as clean mountain air.
Not so in China. Perhaps it’s the smog in China’s biggest and wealthiest cities that makes locals wrinkle their noses at the smell of off-the-factory-floor plastics, glues and leathers used to make car interiors. But whatever the reason, the head of Lincoln Motor Co., Ford’s luxury division, says his company is removing the smell from new Lincolns headed to Chinese dealerships.
"They don't like it," Kumar Galhotra, Lincoln's president, told The Detroit News in a report published Monday. "We've gone through a very thorough process of understanding the materials that contribute to that smell." It’s all part of the learning curve for selling luxury cars in China.
To scrub the car of odor, each Lincoln gets a container of odor-absorbing carbon sheets placed inside the cabin before the car is loaded onto a cargo container headed to China. By the time the vehicle arrives, the container is removed, along with the smell.
"The experiences are different, expectations are different between U.S. and China," Galhotra said.
Ford is a relative newcomer to the Chinese market. While it sold vehicles there before World War II, it didn’t return to the country until 1997, well after its main foreign rivals in China, Volkswagen and General Motors, had become dominant players. As China’s luxury car market grows, Galhotra is facing a big challenge in boosting Lincoln market share from other luxury brands, namely GM’s Cadillac, Volkswagen’s Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Other automakers are aware of the issue and have, like Audi does, so-called “nose teams” that inspect cars for chemical odors, including cars sold in China. Leather is scrutinized for the sometimes overbearing scent of animal fats used to soften it -- including fish oil. Mats are checked to make sure they aren’t exuding strong scents from the plastics used to make them. Luxury cars tend to get more scrutiny than other mass-produced vehicles in the odor department.
In addition to neutral-odor cabins, Chinese luxury car consumers also prefer longer cars that provide most rear-seat legroom, typically because buyers of the cars have drivers and spend more time in the back. Audi makes A4 and A6 sedans in China that are longer than the ones it sells elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz last year released a lengthened C-Class for the Chinese market, as did Cadillac. Almost every major automaker is working on cars and SUVs with special attention to back seat spaciousness, comfort and legroom. GM’s Cadillac ATS-L and Lincolns sold in China have more rear-seat padding and contouring to meet Chinese expectations.