Chinese Consumers Hate That New-Car Smell

  • Unpleasant interior odor is top problem, J.D. Power China says
  • U.S. car buyers most dissatisfied with buggy tech features

A visitor sits in the driver's seat of a Dongfeng S500 electric car at the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition. New car smell is deemed unpleasant in China, where formaldehyde pollution of interior air have worried people.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

It turns out the sweet, leathery smell that American consumers crave in their new cars is provoking winces among China’s emerging motoring class.

Unpleasant interior odors topped the list of complaints by Chinese car buyers for a second straight year in J.D. Power’s China Initial Quality Study, a problem that ranks as the No. 21 grievance among Americans. Chinese consumers griped about bad smell 16 times per 100 vehicles, while buggy voice recognition systems drew the most complaints among U.S. motorists.

“Smog and indoor pollution have made Chinese consumers paranoid about smells in new cars, and thus the problem is actually exaggerated,” Jeff Cai, general manager of auto product and quality at J.D. Power China, said during an interview Thursday in Beijing. “On the other hand, there’s a group of consumers in Europe and U.S. who are so fond of it that they will buy new car smell spray to keep it as long as possible.”

The divergence in consumer attitudes in the world’s largest markets on something as basic as how cars smell highlights the differences global automakers have to take into account in order to succeed. In China, dealers are used to prospective buyers banging on car doors in dealerships to test for sturdiness. Automakers from Volkswagen AG to General Motors Co. have put out models with more legroom and more comfortable backseats to cater to Chinese tastes.

Automakers will be under increasing pressure to cater to Chinese preferences, which are in some cases becoming global standards. China surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s biggest auto market in 2009. More new vehicles were sold in China during the first six months of this year than in the U.S. the year the nation was surpassed as the No. 1 market.

The Chinese government is considering whether to make mandatory a set of recommended vehicle interior air quality standards that have been effective since 2012. Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. has been promoting an in-cabin air-filtration system that purports to all but eliminate PM2.5 particulates in two hours.

Among China’s motorists, popular ways of getting rid of that new car smell include using bags of activated carbon, lemon, grapefruit or orange peels, and a mix of water with vinegar. Car washes also offer “ozone sterilization” to eliminate toxins.

American buyers, on the other hand, have been consistent in taking issue with voice recognition, Bluetooth and connectivity systems in J.D. Power’s recent U.S. initial quality surveys, which the researcher has conducted annually the last 30 years.

— With assistance by Yan Zhang

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