When your dashboard lights up, or your car starts running rough, any number of things could be wrong. If you’re mechanically inclined and have the right tools, you could save yourself a lot of money by diagnosing and working on your car yourself. One tool that can make the diagnosis easier and won’t break the bank is an OBD2 scanner and car code reader.
A scanner and car code reader that plugs directly into the OBD2 port in your car to access the onboard computers and systems. The scanner will read the trouble codes put out by the vehicle to help you diagnose the problem so you can fix it and get back on the road. Even if you’re on a tight budget, you can still get a quality OBD2 scanner and car code reader, which could save you a trip to the mechanic. These are some of the best OBD2 scanners and car code readers at various price points and knowledge levels.
The HyperTough HT309 OBD2 Scan Automotive Diagnostic Tool Code Reader is a simple, easy-to-use car code reader for vehicle owners on a budget. You can use this model to read and clear engine diagnostic trouble codes in all 1996 and newer U.S., European and Asian cars. The backlit LCD display screen shows generic, manufacturer-specific and pending codes to figure out why your check engine light is on. This device can also retrieve vehicle information like the CIN, CIN and CVN. If you live in a state with emissions requirements, you can also monitor and check the inspection maintenance (I/M) readiness status to see if your vehicle would pass the test.
There are no extra connectors or cables needed with this OBD2 car code reader because it uses a standard 16-pin connector. The reader also uses the car’s battery power to work so that you won’t need batteries. For $20 or less at most major retailers, the HyperTough HT309 is a great choice for a budget card code OBD2 reader and scanner.
For the vehicle owner on the budget who needs to record live data, the Auto AutoLink AL329 Code Reader OBDII Scanner is a step up from the HyperTough HT309. The Autel Autolink has all the same features as the HyperTough but includes the ability to graph, record and replay live data taken from your vehicle. This helps diagnose specific sensors that could cause your vehicle to set a check engine light.
While the HyperTough has only two buttons to enter or exit and scroll with a small display screen, the Autel has a larger display screen for easier viewing and comes with an additional button dedicated to checking emissions status. The LED indicator lights easily let you know if there is a problem with the car’s engine. The red indicator signals a problem, and a diagnostic trouble code (DTC) is present, while yellow shows there may be a problem, and green gives the all-clear.
For Android and iPhone users who don’t want to deal with a separate scanner, the Actron CP9600 U-Scan Smartphone Interface Scan Tool plugs directly into the OBDII port and uses your smartphone to display its findings. This scan tool works on all cars 1996 and newer with both Asian and domestic check engine lights. For 1996 to 2013 makes and models, the Actron CP9600 also reads and erases anti-lock brakes (ABS), airbags (SRS) and transmission codes.
The Actron CP9600 also provides real-time engine data, including coolant temperature, RPM, sensor readings, mass air flow, oxygen sensor and more. Simply plug in the tool and download the app to your smartphone to get started. The vehicle activity log provides a history of the vehicle procedures and tests already completed, and the MyGarage feature helps you easily access and manage vehicles. With CodeConnect, fixes for the DTCs are reported and verified by Actron’s team of ASE-certified technicians to give the everyday driver the confidence in fixing minor repairs.
Can be left connected to your OBD2 port at all times
Works with Android and iPhone
Read real-time engine data from your phone
Reads multiple car systems in newer makes and models
If you’re only worried about check engine lights but still want the capability of using your smartphone rather than an OBD2 scanner, consider the FIXD Vehicle Diagnostic Device. This simple device plugs into the OBD2 port for most 1996 and newer gas-powered vehicles and 2008 and newer diesel vehicles, providing only the diagnostic trouble code without the data.
Simply plug in the device, start your vehicle and tap the scan button on your smartphone to get started. FIXD works with multiple vehicles using the same app, similar to driving tracking devices offered by car insurance companies. For a monthly fee of $5.83, you can get upgraded features like talking to a mechanic, knowing how much a repair could cost, predicting future problems and getting vehicle history if you plan to buy a used car in the future.
Can connect multiple devices with one app
Keep track of vehicle maintenance
Provides vehicle history for used cars (premium service required)
If you’re a mechanic who does most of your own repairs and wants a Bluetooth option, the Autel MaxiAP AP 200M is the best without breaking your budget. While the app is free to use, it requires an annual upgrade fee of $19.99 to continue diagnosing all your car’s systems for another year. This multifunction scanner turns your smartphone into a vehicle diagnostic powerhouse and includes maintenance service features that rival a mechanics scan tool.
The Autel MaxiAP AP 200M is an all-system diagnostic tool that is capable of performing most of your regular maintenance services, including:
Throttle angle reset
Diesel particulate filter (DPF) regeneration
Electronic parking brake (EPB)
Steering angle sensor (SAS)
Battery management system (BMS)
Airbag reset/deployment loops
Anti-lock brake (ABS) system bleeding
With the Autel MaxiAP AP 200M, you get OE-level system diagnostics with a high level of accuracy, which can save you thousands over visiting a mechanic for service.
All-system diagnostic plug-in tool with a free smartphone app
Works with all 1996 and newer U.S, European and Asian cars
Records diagnostic data in real-time to generate repair reports
With a price point under $200, this plug-in OBD2 scanner is a great option for a new technician just starting out or a seasoned DIY mechanic who knows their way around a car. The Launch CRP123X comes with a large 5″ color display HD touchscreen for easy viewing and is rechargeable, so it’s ready whenever you need it.
The scan tool works with over 57 car brands, covering OBD2/EOBD/JOBD vehicles. The Launch CRP123X also includes a battery voltage tester and automatic VIN technology to help you identify your car quickly without having to enter it manually. You can update the software anytime when connected to Wi-Fi with free lifetime updates with just one click. The updated battery is new in 2021, upgraded from 4000mAh to 6100mAh to provide an even longer time between charges. The 4-in-1 live data graph creates a diagnostic report that can be shared with a mechanic as needed.
If you have the budget and want a quality OBD2 scanner and car code reader that rivals dealership level diagnostic tools, the Innova FixAssist 5160RS is a great choice. With bi-directional control, this scanner can test the functionality of electric motors, clutches, and actuators. It performs all reset functions to complete repairs or maintenance like steering angle reset, DPF regeneration, and parking brake calliper resets for newer vehicles with an electric parking brake.
On top of scanning and clearing all systems, the FixAssist 5160RS can also:
Test hybrid battery cell voltage
Bleed the ABS system
Check and recalibrate TPMS/tire pressure
Relearn throttle body
Test for compression
Test cylinder balance
Relearn cam crank position
With an optional adapter, this model can also work on OBD1 vehicles from 1981 to 1995 Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota. If you’re unsure if your particular car is covered, you can enter your vehicle information or VIN at the Innova website to confirm it will work before purchase.
Complete functionality of all vehicle systems
Optional OBD1 coverage with additional adapter
Perform dealership level relearn procedures
Can perform electronic parking brake service and ABS brake bleeding for newer cars
It can be paired with diagnostic app RepairSolutions2 for smartphone access
How did we choose these products?
The criteria used to choose these products include the cost of the tool, functional features, smartphone access abilities, system usage and ability to use with multiple makes and models. I also spoke with a few mechanics in my local area who work at dealerships and independent shops to get their recommendations on brands and features they use and have had positive experiences with. The best OBD2 scanners and car code readers listed above come at various price points with different features and range from basic automotive knowledge to professional needs.
Which is the right one for you?
When shopping for the best OBD2 scanner and car code reader, consider what you need the tool to do. If you only want the ability for checking an engine light, then one of the budget models may be enough. However, if you do your own mechanical work and need an advanced model similar to what a dealership has, consider the higher end scanners with more capability. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, make sure to check that the OBD2 scanner and car code reader will work with your particular make and model.
With limited stock in new and slightly used cars, the average used car buyer is looking at cars seven or more model years old. While you may get a great purchase price, the likelihood of a problem is greater with an older model vehicle. Buying the best OBD2 scanner and car code reader for your make and model can help you save even more by diagnosing and fixing your car yourself.
Do OBD2 readers work on all cars?
Most OBD2 scanners and car code readers do not work on all cars. If you are looking for an OBD2 scanner or car code reader, you should check if it works with your particular make and model before buying it.
Is it worth buying an OBD2 scanner?
It may be worth buying an OBD2 scanner if you can do your own mechanical work and need a tool to scan your malfunctioning lights. Some of the more advanced models can check all the car’s systems, while the basic models only read check engine light codes. Performing your own diagnostics and repairs could save you thousands by not having to pay a mechanic to do the work you can do yourself.
Is it OK to leave OBD2 plugged in?
Yes, it is ok to leave the OBD2 scanner, and car code reader plugged in. While it won’t damage your car, it draws small amounts of power, so over time, it could drain and kill your battery if you do not drive your car regularly.
Are there alternatives worth considering?
There are thousands of OBD2 scanners and car code readers to choose from. Consider your needs for a scanner or car code reader and your budget when researching the available options. Though the OBD2 scanners and car code readers mentioned are some of the best, there are still alternatives worth considering:
Cen-Tech OBDII Code Reader: If you have a Harbor Freight close by, this code reader is slightly more expensive than the HyperTough, but it has all the same features and may have a more durable case.
Launch CRP123: The next step down from the Launch CRP123X, this model is cheaper but does not come with the tire pressure monitoring reset tool.