Keeping an eye on a car's diagnostics can mean the difference between a routine check-up and a hefty bill from the mechanic, and the emergence of smartphones makes it possible to better understand what your ride should and shouldn't be doing.
The PLX Kiwi WiFi is able to do that with a high level of detail, but not without minimal fuss.
PLX Kiwi WiFi: $149.99 (U.S.)
Available at:Thinkgeek.com, some independent 12V retailers, apps available at Apple App Store
The Kiwi WiFi is designed to be completely agnostic as far as the vehicle goes. As long as it has an OBD-II port, standard in every vehicle since 1996, it should be able to connect to the onboard computer without hassle. This is why it's important to point out that this is essentially a two-part commitment because the Kiwi WiFi doesn't do all the work on its own.
Enter the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. The premise here is to connect the Kiwi to the iOS device via Wi-Fi wherein the two form an ad hoc connection. From there, specific apps can be used to pull in the data coming from the port. It sounds simple enough, but setup is made more complicated by the fact this came out almost three years ago when the iPhone 3GS was Apple's latest handset.
This took some troubleshooting and research, but eventually, it worked with an iPhone 5. The Kiwi first requires that you input specific network settings on the phone as per the instructions, and then it only worked properly when I put the phone in Airplane Mode. This meant I couldn't get any calls, texts or e-mails, which scored a point for less distracted driving.
Once up and running with apps like DashCommand, Rev, FuzzyCar and Speedport, the car's entire health was at my fingertips. Of course, these apps are so intricate that they need to have a wide range of details inputted first, so as to give a more accurate and personalized picture of what the car is doing. Everything from the VIN (which is automatically filled once you drive) to the size of the gas tank and tire size are required for precision. Looking through the manual gets you answers to all these things, but it takes time to get everything down to a tee.
The average driver will likely be overwhelmed, bewildered – or both – when it comes to what the apps take in. The sophistication and detailed approximations are very much what a true gearhead would appreciate. Knowing why a light pops up on the dash, understanding the vehicle's fuel economy and right down to the lateral acceleration and braking graphic, there's a lot to look at here. It's also nice that the apps can log the data, too.
The apps that work with the Kiwi aren't all the same, and DashCommand appears to be the most detailed and specific, while FuzzyCar might be easier for less inclined drivers to manage. Even those who race on tracks regularly can use the Race Track feature on DashCommand as an aid.
The hardware is showing its age a bit, but it's the connectivity that proves the most troublesome. It crashed my phone on two occasions and was such a battery drain that I had to have the phone charging at the same time.