Useful Tool to Save You Time and MPG

Ahh, the joys of a new car.  You walk out of the dealership, knowing that for at least three years or 36,000 miles, you are covered if you have a major repair issue.

But what if you are out of warranty and things start going wrong?  The answer is usually a trip to the dealer or independent mechanic to diagnose problems.  With mechanic labor rates often exceeding $100 per hour, even a “check” of what’s wrong can set you back big dollars.

To help save money diagnosing certain vehicle problems, you can use a scan tool or code reader.  These easy-to-use tools can read and erase trouble codes, display, record and play back live diagnostic data and perform other tests.

These tools are very reasonably priced between $50 and $1000 depending on quality and features, and easily pay for themselves with one or two diagnoses.

Many engine and engine-related problems are first noticed when the dreaded “Check Engine” light illuminates on your dashboard.  Since 1996, all vehicles made in the U.S. have a port called the OBD-II port (On Board Diagnostics-II), that’s usually located in the driver’s knee area.  It’s there to help easily diagnose vehicle system problems.

When your check engine light turns on, the vehicle actually stores information on the problem in the form of “codes.” These codes are kept in memory so that problems can be pinpointed.  If you get a check engine light, a code reader or scan tool can tell you where the problem lies, arming you with useful information when you seek professional help to get the problem repaired.  The more you know about your vehicle systems, the lower the probability you’ll be taken for a ride by unscrupulous mechanics.

Here’s how scan tools and code readers work:  Turn your vehicle’s key to the “on “ position.  Attach the tool.  The tool will access the vehicle’s memory and report what problems exist by displaying one or more engine codes.

To prepare for this column, I attached an Actron CP9190 Elite Scan Tool Pro to my neighbor Paul’s 2006 Volvo S40 with 42,000 miles.  The car’s check engine light had recently illuminated, so it was the perfect test “mule.”  Actron scan tools are very intuitive.  Once attached, it read memory and displayed one code for a faulty oxygen sensor.  Paul had noticed a marked dropoff in fuel economy before the check engine light came on, but attributed it to the cold weather and his desire to fully warm up the car before he drove off in the morning.  It should be noted that there are two types of engine codes, generic and vehicle specific.  For example, your Buick may list a different code set from Paul’s Volvo.  Generic codes are shared among all U.S. made, emissions compliant vehicles. For example PO199 – Engine Oil Sensor Intermittent, is a generic code.  The Actron CP9190 also allows you to print the data your tool finds, once again arming you with data to share with your mechanic.  In Paul’s case, he picked up a new oxygen sensor from a local parts store for about $100, and installed it himself.  Total time to install? About 50 minutes.  Total money saved?  He was quoted $470 at a Volvo dealer.  And his gas mileage returned to normal, saving him even more money.
As always, before you engage in any DIY activities on your vehicle, make sure you’ve covered all of the safety bases first.  Read the manual that comes with the tool, and protect your hands, eyes and ears.
Visit for more details.  The CP9190 Elite Scan Tool Pro is available discounted online for about $280, some $370 cheaper than its suggested retail price.
If you have a product you’d like to have reviewed in this column, write to us at


Share This Story...