4 Causes Smell Like Vinegar In Car and Quick Steps To Remove

Does your car have a foul odor like the vinegar smell but you don’t know why and how to get rid of it ?

There are some reasons cause the vinegar smell in cars you should consider such as moisture in car air conditioner, foods, voltage regulator or catalytic converter.

Whether you have just experienced it for the first time or it happens all the time, you’re in the right place! This article will show you causes and how to eliminate the vinegar smell in your car as well as how you can prevent the smell in the future.

Armor All Car Air Freshener and Cleaner - Odor Eliminator to remove vinegar smell in car

Armor All Car Air Freshener and Cleaner

K&N Cabin Air Filter Cleaning Kit: Spray Bottle Filter Cleaner and Refresher Kit to remove vinegar smell in car

K&N Spray Bottle Filter Cleaner

Cause 1: Moisture is in car air conditioner

Usually, when you turn on your car, there is always hot air outside, and cold air gets generated by the air conditioner unit. When heat exchange happens, the cold air runs through the air conditioner. Hot air also flows through the unit, resulting in a condensation process that leaves moisture in the A/C unit. The moisture then leads to the growth of bacteria and mold build-up. As the mold decays, fermentation occurs, leading to alcohol formation, forming a vinegar-like smell. This is why your car smells like vinegar as soon as you turn on your air conditioner.

What To Do ?

Before you can begin, ensure you have a car air conditioner cleaner

Step 1:

Start the car and turn both the a/c and the fan to the maximum. Open all the windows and the hood to access the fresh air intake vents located by the windshield.

Step 2:

Spray the air condition cleaner for about 5-1- seconds right into the fresh air intake vents and turn off the car immediately you’re done. This allows the cleaner to stay in the core and not get vented off.

Spray the car air condition cleaner into car air vents.
Step 3:

Keep the fan and the a/c off for around 4-6 hours. Performing this task overnight is recommended.

Step 4:

When you turn your car back on, open all the windows and turn the fan to the maximum. This helps to get rid of bacteria and mold that got killed.

Note: If you’re still smelling a bad odor in your car after cleaning the a/c, you may need to replace the cabin air filters.

The function of the cabin air filter is to trap smells and dirt that are trying to get into the car. Once the filter gets old, they start producing a bad vinegar-like odor due to the dirt and smell trapped in them. If this is the case, you will need to buy and replace the old air filters with the new ones.

When shopping for cabin air filters, look for antibacterial and antifungal air filters. These are the ones that help your car smell the best and eliminate odors.

Buy this couple of products to remove bad odors:

Armor All Car Air Freshener and Cleaner - Odor Eliminator to remove vinegar smell in car

Armor All Car Air Freshener and Cleaner

K&N Cabin Air Filter Cleaning Kit: Spray Bottle Filter Cleaner and Refresher Kit to remove vinegar smell in car

K&N Spray Bottle Filter Cleaner

Cause 2: Food left somewhere in your car.

You can also forget food in your car for a long time that it rots in the car. This can cause the vinegar smell that is so unpleasant to many.

Forget foods in cars for a long time can cause the vinegar smell.

What To Do ?

These steps can help you get rid of the smell completely.

Step 1:

The first step is to eliminate the source of the smell. You will have to go through your car and find the food. Check underneath the seats, the floor, trunk, cargo nets, and other storage spaces in your car.

Wear your gloves while removing the food and when cleaning because it could get glossy.

Step 2:

Even though it may not seem to have a smell, clean the inside windows with some glass cleaner, wipe down the dash and the plastic panel using some interior cleaner.

Step 3:

If the food was in the carpet, vacuum it up to remove the debris and dirt then using a carpet shampoo. 

Step 4:

If the food or drink spilled over into the seats , you would need to use an upholstery cleaner or a carpet shampoo. Scrub the areas until they are clean.

Step 5:

If the odor persists, sprinkle baking soda on the area and allow a few hours to absorb the smell. Afterward, vacuum the powder. The smell should disappear.

Baking soda to remove vinegar smell in car

Arm & Hammer Pure Baking Soda

K&N Cabin Air Filter Cleaning Kit: Spray Bottle Filter Cleaner and Refresher Kit to remove vinegar smell in car

K&N Spray Bottle Filter Cleaner

Note: Besides using an interior cleaner to clean food in car, you should use an anti-bacterial spray to eliminate odor. In this way, you can protect yourself and your family from mold and bacterial.

Cause 3: The Voltage Regulator Overcharges the Battery.

A voltage regulator maintains the correct spark levels of the alternator. If it becomes faulty, the alternator overcharges the battery, leading to the gradual bubbling of the battery acid. So, you will sense the smell of vinegar in your car. 

What To Do ?

If this is the case, clean the acid or replace the faulty voltage regulator in your car with these steps.

Step 1:

Locate the voltage regulator under the hood of the car. In most cases, the voltage regulator is on the back of the alternator or the inside. Only in rare cases will you find it on the sides.

Step 2:

Use a wrench to detach the battery cables, beginning with the positive cable labeled with a ‘+’ sign. 

Step 3:

Position the new regulator over the faulty one in line with the cables, without attaching it to the alternator. Remove each cable from the old regulator and plug it into the new one. You may find up to four cables, depending on the model of your car. 

Step 4:

Replace the battery cables and tighten them with a wrench, ensuring you attach them in the right way; positive charge to positive and negative to negative.

Note: You can let professionals replace the voltage regulator

Depending on the type of car you own, replacing a voltage regulator could mean replacing the entire regulator or just the voltage regulator. If you are replacing the whole alternator, it should cost between $200 and $500. If it’s just the voltage regulator, it costs between $20 and $200. The labor cost is estimated between $50 and $100.

Cause 4: Clogged Catalytic Converter

Why catalytic converter?

Because cars are just like human beings. They, too, have to breathe in, so ensure you have clean filters. But they also have to breathe out through the tailpipe. If the exhaust system is clogged up, in most cases, the catalytic converter, the engine suffocates and cannot exhale. This causes the vinegar smell in your car due to the formation of gases.

Clogged catalytic converter may cause the vinegar smell

What To Do ?

Follow below simple steps to solve this problem:

Step 1:

Since the catalytic converter is located at the rear bottom side of the vehicle, you will have to jerk it up to see it better.

Step 2:

Drill two holes in front and behind the catalytic converter to measure the exhaust pressure with a gauge. (remember to close the holes once done checking).
Stick the gauge in the holes one at a time, turn on the engine, and measure the pressure.

Step 3:

If the pressure at the back is less than 1 pound (lying in the green area of the gauge), and the pressure at the hole behind the catalytic converter is way beyond the green line, it means the catalytic converter is clogged.

Step 4:

You will need to make it clean or replace your catalytic converter with a new one.

So, I have given you four ways to eliminate the vinegar smell in your car. However, you also should know how to avoid them

How To Avoid Vinegar Smell In Car

Prevention is always better than waiting to find a solution. These tips will help you forget about having a vinegar smell in your car again.

1. Hang an air freshener in your car. It will help add a fresh smell to your interior. Air fresheners work by masking and odors, not by eliminating them. Therefore, you will need to use other tips to prevent the smell.

2. Ensure you clean spills and remove food particles from your car and never let them rot. A good way is to have a bin to keep leftover food and dirt. It would be best if you never forgot to clean the container regularly.

3. Replace your air filters more often if they have been there for long. We recommend using antifungal and antibacterial air filters.

4. If your car has over 70,000 mileage, consider replacing it with a new catalytic converter before the old one gets clogged out.

5. Often check the voltage regulator and ensure it’s not overcharging the battery.

6. Leave your car windows open to get rid of odors.

Final Thought

Vinegar smell can be anything from not so fresh, slightly embarrassing, to absolutely undrivable. It will make you uncomfortable in your car. But if you use these tips on how to get rid of the vinegar smell in your car, you will reduce it. If not completely eliminated, you can always top it off with an air freshener. Then you’re good to go.


1. How often do you change the air filter in your car?

You should change the air filter of the car after 15,000-30,000 miles. This, however, depends on the driving conditions.

2. Can I change my car air filter by myself?

Yes. Replacing your car’s air filter is really fast and under 20 minutes and typically doesn’t require any tools.

3. Can you clean and reuse car air filters?

Although you can clean and reuse car air filters, you will need to replace them at the next service. 

Read more:

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