I mean, really smells like rotting garbage. Looks like oil, but don't think it is because the crankcase would have been empty long before now and because of the smell.

It's a lifted 4x4. Has a history of burning oil, but I just added some. AC compressor is out so I keep it off.

So today I'm on my way to work and I get that rotting garbage smell again. As I'm parking, the low oil light comes on, and whatever is dripping, but it's tight under the hood and I can't track where it's coming from. It's pretty hot and there's some steam and I can hear sizzling. I know it's too hot to open the radiator. So I'm thinking the coolant is low.

But the rotting garbage thing? WTH? I don't want to sink a lot of money into this beast but would have trouble replacing it right now.

EDIT: It wasn't the low oil light that came on but the high temp light. Apparently whatever's leaking has been leaking from the radiator. So I opened it up after it cooled and it's low, so I need to fill it, but what's with the stench, the rotting garbage stench? I've never heard of that coming from a radiator.

  • 2
    Gear oil smells bad. I'm not sure what the 4x4 transfer case is filled with, but it could stink. Also, and animal didn't crawl up there and die, right?
    – JPhi1618
    Sep 26, 2017 at 14:04
  • 1
    could it be sulfur ( rotten egg smell )? That could come from (severely) overcharging the battery. In any case catching some of whats dripping might tell you something.
    – agentp
    Sep 26, 2017 at 14:08

1 Answer 1


Smells like rotting garbage is just too subjective for us to know what you mean. I've smelled a lot of garbage in my life and have a decent smeller, and not all garbage smells the same, and usually a given bin will produce a multitude of odors - alcohol from bacteria, 'stink' from oils going rancid, 'smell of death' caused by clostridium growing on meats, odors of foods which are still fresh, etc, etc.

Burning antifreeze smells like garbage to some people. It is a 'sweet' odor, but it is quite unique and easily distinguished from other 'sweet' odors like beer and tobacco. What it smells like to a particular person can vary quite a bit, but from your description this sounds like the most likely thing to me.

As mentioned in the comment, this could also be rancid gear oil, which smells pretty nasty, but not much like a pile of garbage, to me anyway.

The other thing I've seen a few times is actual rotten food stuck in various places in the car. Check under the seats and everywhere else to make sure what you're smelling is actually related to the burning that you are seeing visually.

It's probably going to be impossible for us to diagnose this odor from a written description, but here's an article which might help: https://umass.uloop.com/news/view.php/52745/five-car-smells-you-should-never-ignore

But, I suggest taking the car to an experienced mechanic. I would probably be able to identify the odor if I could smell it myself.

Summary of article follows:

  • syrup -> antifreeze
  • rotten eggs -> catalytic converter problem
  • smells like a deep fryer -> oil burning, probably dripping onto the exhaust
  • burnt carpet -> brakes (possibly e-brake or clutch)
  • burning rubber -> melted hoses, slipping or burnt belts
  • 1
    Summary of smells : excellent +1 , let's hope we don't get a long list of comments suggesting variations / other examples :)
    – Solar Mike
    Sep 27, 2017 at 4:50

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