We all know how powerful scent can be: we experience it each time we light a scented candle and instantly feel different. If a sniff of lemon is reputed to energise and inhaling some lavender to soothe, then surely car diffusers might be just what we need to give us that pick-me-up when we’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the motorway for an hour?
“Smells provide a bridge to your individual memory,” explains Tim In der Smitten of Mercedes-Benz. “If you can smell your favourite room fragrance in the car, you will feel very comfortable and safe. It is more of a holistic sense of wellbeing than targeting a special experience. Perfumes tell stories.” The car manufacturer has been offering different perfumes with the S-Class saloon car since 2013 (there are now 16 Mercedes-Benz car scents).
But you don’t need to drive a Benz to enjoy the pleasing smell of a car diffuser: brands from Diptyque and Jo Malone to The White Company all have their own versions, as do dedicated independent companies such as Charabanc and L’Original. Most need to be plugged into the air vent to work, and you need the air-con or heating on to really get the full effects.
These are a far cry from the hanging car trees you may be familiar with: they’re stylish, with powerful, evocative scents, suitable for long car journeys or daily commutes. They are especially effective at getting that mouldy football boot or child car sickness smell out of family vehicles.
How we tested
We’ve been trialling these car diffusers in our vehicles for several weeks, as well as sniffing them when out and about (they slip easily into handbags and jeans pockets). In this roundup, we’ve also included a couple of luxury hanging car fresheners, which can be used without an air vent. It’s good to note that many of these diffusers are sold separately from the scents which last about three months before they need to be replaced.
The best car diffusers for 2021 are:
- Best overall – Diptyque car diffuser and scented insert: £79, Spacenk.com
- Best uplifting scent – Jo Malone London car diffuser: £48, Lookfantastic.com
- Best for luxury – Charabanc signal red pomander with Monument Valley car fragrance journey: £145, Charabanc.com
- Best gift for the man in your life – Acqua di Parma and Poltrona Frau airound car diffuser: £95, Acquadiparma.com
- Best for your handbag or car – L’Original galaxy silver diffuser: £39.90, Loriginal.co.uk
- Best car freshener – DS & Durga auto fragrance set: £60, Mrporter.com
- Best discreet diffuser – The White Company car scent diffuser: £15, Thewhitecompany.com
- Best wooden diffuser – Rituals car perfume the ritual of oudh: £17.50, Rituals.com
- Best budget buy – Spry car fragrance: £5, Theperfumeshop.com
Diptyque car diffuser and scented insert
A Diptyque candle is an instant mood lifter, and we’re pleased to report that the brand’s diffuser brings the same quality, style and delicious fragrance to the car. Choose from favourite scents like baies, figuier, fleur d’oranger and more. We love the design of this diffuser, which features an adjustable grid so you can alter the intensity of the fragrance (it happens to look visually stunning too, with its gold and black colourway). Some reviewers have complained that this detaches from their air vents but we haven’t experienced that issue; it stayed in place through many rides, even helping us to forget a child had been sick in the car during one journey.
Jo Malone London car diffuser
Best: Uplifting scent
Nothing lifts the mood quite so swiftly as a waft of Jo Malone’s lime, basil and mandarin, which translates beautifully from body and home fragrance to your car in this lightweight diffuser. Slide the scent refill (£25, Lookfantastic.com) into the square diffuser before attaching it to the air vent. It’s super-easy to use, delivers a strong – but not overwhelming – scent, and definitely made us feel perkier. The refills are also available in wood sage and sea salt, and peony and blush suede.
Charabanc signal red pomander with Monument Valley car fragrance journey
Best: For luxury
Everything about this item screams luxury and sustainable design. It’s gorgeous: a hand-crafted steel pomander with a sumptuous moulded leather cap and lanyard. It’s also versatile – you can hang it on your rearview mirror, drop it into a cup holder or attach the magnetic backing to insert it into the air vent (this is the strongest way to experience the scent, when the air or heat are turned on). Unlike a fragrance you know and expect, Charabanc’s scents are olfactory journeys, layered, complex and inspired by serious road trips. We found the Monument Valley drive fragrance – which combines raspberry, violet leaves, thyme, cypress oil, saffron, amber, jasmine, mate and leather – utterly transportive and intoxicating, even when driving to distinctly unglamorous destinations. You can choose from a range of leather colours and scents.
Acqua di Parma and Poltrona Frau airound car diffuser
Best: Gift for the man in your life
Italy’s top leather goods brand, Poltrona Frau, and fragrance company Acqua di Parma joined forces to create this delightful car diffuser with a removable magnetic back. The fragrance capsule slips inside and the Milano scent we tested can only be described as unbelievably delicious. The sleek and masculine leather diffuser is so appealing that our friend ordered one for the special man in her life as soon as she saw – and smelled – it.
This product is currently out of stock, but more stock is expected in the next couple of weeks. Sign up for email notifications on the Acqua di Parma website.
L’Original Galaxy Silver Diffuser
Best: For your handbag or car
L’Original’s diffusers look like stylish tech toys with their polished metal finishes and orb-like design. They slot into the car grille like the others but are also petite enough to slip into handbags for a quick pick-me-up sniff when out and about. Choose from a range of metallic finishes – including a chic rose gold – and primarily floral-based fragrances, which are delicate and delicious. This one takes a bit of fiddling to get it going, but once it does it’s certainly worth it.
DS & Durga auto fragrance set
Best: Car freshener
This might look like one of the hanging car fresheners of yesteryear, but it will surprise you. Not only are we obsessed by DS & Durga’s playful names (portable fireplace, concrete after lightning), each hanging card has cute graphics and smells divine and powerful (we can’t stop sniffing holy ficus, just for fun). These can double as home air fresheners and work wonders in wardrobes, too.
The White Company car scent diffuser
Best: Discreet diffuser
This is perfect if you’re looking for a subtle diffuser; it’s so sleek and petite you can barely spot it in your air vent. It comes with three refill sticks so you can alternate fragrances; the lime and bay oil we tested with it smells gorgeous. In theory, you can use any oils you like on the diffuser stick if you have essential oils lying around at home.
Rituals the ritual of oudh car perfume
Best: Wooden diffuser
This car scent comes with a chic rectangular wooden diffuser that looks super-smart in your car (although you may find it bulkier than the others since the diffuser is the width of the air vent). We tested the ritual of oudh, which is a musky, sexy oudh and patchouli fragrance. The brand has a huge selection of scents to try out, from the ritual of sakura to wild fig – and they all work in the lightweight diffuser, which is probably one of the most well-priced options in our round-up, especially since it includes two refills.
Spry car fragrance
Best: Budget buy
This budget car freshener comes shaped like a cute perfume bottle and quickly fills up the car with its refreshing scent. It’s cute enough to be a gift for that friend that’s always driving you around everywhere.
The verdict: Best car diffusers
Diptyque’s car diffuser was a real treat in terms of looks, fragrance and the ability to adjust how dramatically the scent came through the grille. For a versatile car freshener that also works at home and can be hung anywhere, DS & Durga’s auto fragrances smell amazing.
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To keep your car tidy as well as smelling good, read our round-up of the best car vacuum cleaners
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