With an all new, twin-turbo-powered, all-wheel-drive Acura NSX bearing down on us, enthusiasts and amateurs alike are talking about all the features that this new sports car will have to offer. But what about the old NSX, with its aluminum chassis, superior handling characteristics, mid-engine layout, and infamous Honda reliability?
Inevitably, the cost of these previous incarnations is set to plummet when the new NSX launches later this year, and everyone will surely be selling their old NSX and scrambling to upgrade to the latest and greatest Honda-powered tire-shredder, right? Sadly, though, the only thing that has dropped on the NSX is a whole new generation of zealots who pine for one of the most reliable supercars in history. So don’t expect the price to dive.
To better understand the ins and outs of purchasing a used NSX, we turned to Brian Urlage, who is acting president of the NSX Club of North America, owner of NSX specialty shop Source 1 Automotive, and arguably one of the most reputable sources on the topic imaginable. He told us that a few years back, when the economy was firmly entrenched in the gutter, NSXs were going for pennies, as their owners hastily sold them off in order to keep their own lavish lifestyles afloat. But in recent years, things have boomeranged, and NSXs are selling for an all-time high, like the one listed here on eBay for far more than its original sticker price.
So in order to keep potential buyers from getting ripped off, we have constructed this handy list of things to watch out for when shopping for a used NSX — because there is no denying the fact that this is one very expensive car to fix (despite i’s Honda heritage), and no one wants to buy a lemon.
1. Clutch complications
There is one primary reason why NSXs have clutch issues, and it is mostly due to the way Honda designed the clutch. All NSX clutches have too little surface area right out of the factory despite being higher-horsepower cars; so when test driving a used NSX, be sure to listen for any undue engine racing when going through gears or when gunning it up an incline, which is a sure sign of a fading clutch. Be prepared to replace that clutch every 40,000 to 50,000 miles (about half the lifespan of typical manual Hondas), and always be sure to engage the clutch quickly and release it in the same fashion to prolong the life of that freshly installed transmission component.
2. Mandatory maintenance
It’s pretty common knowledge that all belt-driven Hondas require a water pump and timing belt change when they hit the 80,000 to 90,000 mile range, and the NSX is no different. Since pistons slapping valves around is never a solid plan, we highly advise potential buyers to scrutinize the previous owner’s maintenance records thoroughly, and if something seems amiss, or a shop with a questionable reputation spearheaded the belt change, it might be best to just walk away. There’s no worse feeling than paying good money for a good car, only to realize that it needs a complete engine rebuild within a week’s time.
3. ABS anguish
Unless someone is purchasing a stripped-down, track-ready NSX, chances are pretty good that it still has an anti-lock brake system on board, which needs inspection. This is especially important in earlier models, where a failing pressure accumulator is usually the guilty culprit when an ABS system begins to fail. Be sure to listen out for a washing machine-like noise when driving to confirm this common symptom. If all else fails, take the car to a trusted mechanic for a complete brake inspection, which is something that should happen at some point in the purchasing process anyway.
4. AC anxiety
Older-model NSXs with greater miles can sometimes be a tempting option when shopping around, but be forewarned: those 1991-1992 models are prone to evaporator AC issues. If that evaporator does indeed go bad, be prepared to drop big money on a new AC system, because everything needs replacing at once when this issue strikes, and this kind of surgery always requires the complete removal of the vehicle’s dash. So be sure to let that AC blow cold for a good long while, even if it is the dead of winter. We recommend turning the AC on and off a few times at idle and also while driving, all the time listening for any erroneous noises that might signify a faulty AC component.
5. Questionable compression
As previously stated, maintenance history is crucial when purchasing these cars. Urlage tells us that being a Honda, NSXs have the potential to last forever if they are cared for properly, and he uses his last NSX as a prime example. “My red ’91 had 390,000 [original] miles. The compression and leak-down tests [on it] were so good we ended up supercharging that engine and it is still being driven today. I believe it is at, or close to 400,000 miles now.”
While this certainly is encouraging to hear, not all NSX owners are as responsible as Urlage, and quite a few of these cars have seen a thorough thrashing in one way, shape, or form. So make sure that trusted mechanic does a thorough leak-down compression test on the car to guarantee that the car’s C-series engine is firing on all six cylinders properly.
6. Window regulator woes
This is another one of those common issues that can be found in pretty much any older Honda. Slow windows are the first warning sign, and then broken window regulator teeth will cause the electrically powered windows to “chatter,” or become misaligned as they roll up and down the track. This is an unavoidable issue with almost all NSXs and can easily be fixed at shops like Source 1 for a fraction of what one might pay at a dealer or an auto store.
7. Worrisome wreckage
So the car checks out great all the way up until the moment a door jam doesn’t seem to line up perfectly with the rest of the car. A quick Carfax report shows that the car was hammered by a belligerent wildebeest, and the owner has tried to cover it all up and now offers a sizable drop in price when confronted with the issue. But is the car still worth purchasing? That really depends on one’s proximity to a shop that knows how to work on aluminum cars.
The all-aluminum frame and body on the NSX was certainly not cheap to manufacture, so it will surely not be cheap to fix. Most body shops won’t touch a car with a damaged aluminum body, and many of them don’t even have the capabilities to make an attempt in the first place. So it is best to steer clear of wrecked NSXs, regardless of how inexpensive they may appear to be.
8. The infamous snap ring snafu
Officially known by Acura as the “Broken Countershaft Bearing Snap Ring” problem, this manufacturing defect was widespread cause for concern in the five-speed transmission found in 1991-1992 NSXs, and according to Acura, it only affected transmissions with numbers #3542 to #5978. This should always be great cause for concern, as the main shaft will basically pop out of the transmission case, thus causing the car to jump out of first gear unexpectedly. So always ask for a transmission number when buying a 1991-1992 NSX, and make sure that it has had the issue previously listed addressed either by Honda/Acura or a reputable transmission specialist.
9. Out-of-control climate control
All those bells and whistles found in the NSX sure are a great selling point. That is, until they begin to go haywire and become an electrical nightmare for the car’s new-found owner. Climate control units are one of the most common electrical gremlins found in the NSX chassis, and nine times out of 10, their resistors will go bad, causing them to act erratically. When cycling through the various climate control settings, be sure to watch for sporadic behavior. Anything relating to the system turning on and off by itself or fan speeds being stuck in a certain spot are an immediate red flag.
10. Sub-par stereos
Urlage’s final tip isn’t so much a tip, but more of a grievance. Despite being Honda’s most prestigious flagship, there has never been an adequately factory stereo in a single NSX. Ever.
The baseborn Bose speakers that come with the car have their own attached amps, thus making the replacement of a blown speaker quite the ordeal, as the entire speaker system needs to be removed, and an aftermarket amp along with new speakers need to be procured and installed to keep the tunes flowing.
What’s more is the fact that the NSX really doesn’t offer a lot of wiggle room for audio upgrades, so choices are quite limited. To make matters worse, all of these cars came equipped with clunky cassette tape players, all of which need removal if one wants to outfit the car with anything MP3- or iPod-compatible.
The only other option at this point is a simple one, and in our opinion, a preferable one at that. No sensible person buys an NSX for a banging sound system. The sound of a high-revving race engine singing in harmony with the screaming of tires should be music to any enthusiast’s ears.