Picture this: you’re out on a thrilling off-road adventure, conquering rugged terrains and feeling the adrenaline coursing through your veins.
Suddenly, an awful scent catches your nose—a distinct hot smell coming from your ATV. While it may be tempting to ignore it and continue, understanding the reasons why your ATV smells hot is crucial for both your safety and the longevity of your machine.
In this post, I’ll explore the most common reasons why an ATV may smell hot and what you can do about it.
Why Your ATV Smells Hot
There are several reasons why an ATV may smell hot, smell like burning rubber, or even smell like it’s burning oil.
Below I list off each reason why you’re getting these smells and will go into greater details in the next sections.
- Burning storage oil.
- Engine is overheating.
- Burning oil.
- Worn out or overused brakes.
- Electrical problems.
- Clutch problems.
- Belt issues.
- Exhaust issues.
- Overloaded electrical accessories.
- Something stuck inside.
- Not doing the proper maintenance.
Next, I’ll go over each point and what you can do to fix the smell.
1. Burning Storage Oil
Storage oil is used on new ATVs as a way to protect it from shipping and the elements outside.
The ATV manufacturer sprays everything down, even parts that get hot after the ATV has been running. This oil naturally burns itself off and will go away after a few hours.
This is only a problem for new ATVs, as all the storage oil should be burned or rubbed off by the mud and dirt after a few hours. The ATV dealership should be test riding the ATV long enough that this should not be a problem, but if they just got it out of the crate in a rush, then there will be a smell.
2. Engine Is Overheating
One of the most common reasons an ATV smells hot is due to an overheating engine. This can be caused by a malfunctioning cooling system, a lack of coolant, or a faulty thermostat.
In most cases, an overheating engine will throw a check engine light or temperature warning on the display. If it gets too bad, the engine should shut off, I say should, but if the sensors fail, then they won’t.
If you think your ATV engine is overheating, then turn the engine off and let it sit for 15 minutes. Look for anything that maybe causing it to overheat, like a stick stuck in the cooling fans of the radiator or a loose hose.
The ATV may enter a “limp home” mode where power is limited until you fix the overheating issue. If the problem is too severe, you’ll need to take the ATV in for repairs.
3. Burning Oil
If you notice a strong, burning smell, it could indicate that oil is leaking onto hot engine parts. This can happen if there is a gasket failure or if the oil is not properly circulating.
Other things that cause your ATV to burn oil are:
- A worn out piston ring
- Damage cylinders
- Oil pressure switch is bad
- Oil dumping into the muffler
- Oil pump is bad
- Worn out valve stem seal
- Leak in the oil cooler
- Overfilling the oil
Refusing to do the first service at 10 hours to get out the break-in oil can also cause that oil to leave a burning smell. After break-in, you need to change the oil and get the correct oil in your ATV. I suggest using the manufacturer’s oil and filters, but if you need a good general ATV oil, then the Valvoline 4-Stroke ATV/UTV SAE 10W-40 Motor Oil* will work.
I would start with a leak down test on your ATV first, as the video below shows.
4. Worn Out Or Overused Brakes
An ATV’s brakes can generate a lot of heat when riding hard.
If the brakes are worn-out or malfunctioning, they can produce a burning smell, especially if you ride hard.
Allow the brakes to cool down, then check the brake pads to see how much life is left in them. If the brake pads are worn out, you’ll need to replace them and maybe even the rotor if it’s worn out, too.
5. Electrical Problems
The ATVs today tend to have a lot more electrical gear, which means more things to go wrong.
Electrical smells tend to have their own unique odor, so if you smell it, then you need to turn the ATV off right away and locate the odor.
Usually, when you smell electrical burning smells, it means something is overloaded or shorted to ground. And if the smell is strong enough, then it’s something with a lot of current.
The last problem I had with burning electrical odor was a guy who had his positive battery cable rubbing against the metal of the ATV, and it eventually rubbed so much that it shorted and melted the cable.
You should also make sure no electrical cables are near hot areas, or are at least shielded* from the heat. The heat from the engine or exhaust can melt electrical wires and cause all kinds of smells and running issues.
6. Clutch Problems
A slipping or worn-out clutch can cause excessive friction and generate a burning odor. This may indicate the need for clutch repairs or replacement.
More of a problem for manual transmission ATVs, but if you’re riding the clutch too much, it can cause burning smells. Automatic ATVs have a clutch, but it’s handled different and has its own issues, as we cover in the next section.
7. Belt Issues
Most automatic ATVs use a CVT transmission to move the ATV, and inside that CVT is a belt that helps it “shift gears” with the expanding clutch pulleys.
A lot of friction is generated in the CVT from the belt as the clutch pulleys move in and out to adjust the speed of the ATV.
If the ATV gets stuck, has too much of a load, or is simply stressed too much, you can end up burning a spot into the belt. You’ll also start to get odd running issues, like belt slipping and not getting to top speed.
Overall, you’ll smell rubber when the belt is being burnt or worn out. The only solution is to replace the belt, and it’s a good idea to carry a spare ATV belt when you go on rides for this exact reason.
The belts on ATVs are quite durable, but getting in a rough spot and over abusing the ATV can literally burn up the belt, and too much heat can start a fire, so be smart and careful!
8. Exhaust Issues
If the ATV exhaust is clogged or damaged, then it can lead to bad burning odors coming from your ATV.
The most common issue is something getting stuck in the exhaust, like mud or dirt.
I’ve also seen damaged pipe or where the exhausts header mounts to the engine and exhaust gasses come out and start to melt the surrounding plastic.
Be sure to check your exhaust of your ATV to make sure it’s not damaged and nothing is stuck in the pipe, allow the exhaust to cool before working on it.
9. Overloaded Electrical Accessories
I keep seeing more guys add more accessories to their ATVs every year, with a lot of them being electrical items.
You need to make sure your ATV’s stator can handle the extra load, or you’ll start to overwork the engine and battery. You also need to make sure you use the correct size wire, and no, speaker wire is not okay.
I had one guy complain about a burning smell from his ATV and after removing the many accessories I found he rigged up his stereo using too small of wire, and he was lucky a fire wasn’t started.
So please, make sure to use the proper wire, connectors, and terminals when adding electrical accessories to your ATV. Don’t tap into the wrong bus or terminal, and follow the correct info from the manufacturer on places to add switches and to get power.
10. Something Stuck Inside
From tree branches stuck in the fan of the radiator to mud caked onto the engine block, all these things can make an ATV start to smell like it’s burning.
After every ride, you need to check over your ATV to make sure nothing is stuck somewhere or jamming something up.
I once had a guy complain of a smell, and it was a cooked lizard on his exhaust pipe that the fender was hiding.
I’ve gotten to the point of pressure washing my ATV before a ride and then after because of the crap that can get caught in them, especially if it’s been sitting for a while. I would have to remove rats nests and other nasty things they would leave behind, even new ATVs suffered as the crates are perfect places for them to hide.
11. Not Doing The Proper Maintenance
Neglecting regular maintenance tasks like oil changes, lubrication, and cleaning can result in excessive heat build-up, leading to various components emitting a hot smell.
From not properly lubing your air filter, to not washing your ATV often, all this and more when it comes to maintaining your ATV is important. Simply doing the correct maintenance on your ATV can save you from many issues in the future, like odd hot smells and burning smells.
Some Hot Smells Are Normal
If you’re riding your ATV or side by side hard, it’s not uncommon, especially on hot days, for it to smell hot.
Nothing is wrong or out of the ordinary for the machine, it’s just that it’s working harder than normal. I would get this often when pulling trailers around with my ATV in the hot summer months. The radiator fans would go on full blast, but it was because I was working it hard, and I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
It’s still a good idea to let the ATV rest and cool off for a few minutes when it does start to run hot. But overall, not all hot smells are bad, it just sometimes means the ATV is working hard on a hot day.