Car Smell Investigation, 2020 Hyundai Palisade Edition

Automorbit, Cars – Editorial team has owned a number of cars for long-term evaluation, buying them new from a local dealership and testing them for a year. At some point, all of our vehicles end up smelling pretty foul as they’re passed from staffer to staffer who does who knows what with them — but this time, in the case of our 2020 Hyundai Palisade, we who smelt it have not dealt it.

The Scent of the Crime

There’s an occasional wretched smell coming from the beige interior of the 2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited we bought in December 2019 that might just be the interior itself. To those of us who have gotten the more severe attack on our nostrils (and it hasn’t been everyone), it’s a sharp chemical odor with a dash of something organic like garlic or rotten produce, and it started at the arrival of 90-degree days in the Chicago area, where Cars.com is headquartered.

Corroborating Evidence

Our local Hyundai service department has, in fact, identified a potential solution with coordination between their field service engineer and Hyundai Motors America. At the dealership on one of those 90-degree days, the service director smelled the seats, perhaps regretting the big whiff, because his nose crinkled and face cringed while exclaiming how bad, “Really bad,” it smelled.

A batch of Palisade Limited owners with the light-colored interior and Nappa seating surfaces are sharing similar experiences on Palisade discussion forums. Some reported getting relief after replacing or deep-cleaning the head restraints, which were often identified as the culprit. This is the fix Hyundai Motors America is taking with our car, according to our dealership’s service director. A backorder, though, means we’ve yet to procure the new head restraints nearly two months after our first visit.

Competing Theories

I’m not convinced the determined solution will be a long-term fix, however, based on my own nostril diagnostics. Two of us have isolated the head restraints overnight, and in the morning didn’t get any odor from the restraints themselves. The putrid stench was seemingly being emitted from inside the seat cavities once I stuck my nostrils over the front seat’s exposed head restraint mounting holes.

It was an observation I shared with the service director, who agreed. The dealership’s first step was to spray a deodorizer down the head restraint mounting holes and in the third-row head restraint slots. The bleachlike smell from the deodorizer masked the foul smell for a day or two, but after two days it returned to its peak pungency. I’ve also attempted general smell mitigation through buckets of baking soda and leather/vinyl upholstery cleaner, but to no avail.

Our leading theory is that it takes heat and sitting with the windows up for the smell to reach George Clinton-level funkiness, which we suspect might be slowly releasing from the seats (or head restraints, if you believe that theory). After all, we didn’t catch our first whiff until six months and 8,000 miles into ownership. Some staffers have found the smell as offensive as I do, poring over the car looking for a rotting potato or spilled solvent, while others recognized the smell but the intensity wasn’t offensive enough to keep them from driving it. To some, the smell stopped being noticeable after driving for 10-15 minutes, or wasn’t noticeable at all.

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