By the time you read this, we'll know all sorts of important details about Acura's second-generation NSX, which, after more than five years of noise, will go on sale later this year. By then we'll know more about the three electric motors that'll supplement the twin-turbocharged, gas-burning V-6; the SH-AWD architecture; and how exactly all of this will come together at Honda's all-new Performance Manufacturing Center in Marysville, Ohio. Once its estimated $150K entry cost is confirmed, we'll also know that most of you probably won't be able to afford one. Which is exactly why you need to know everything you can about Acura's original NSX—a car that's every bit as glamorous, gobs cheaper, and undoubtedly more iconic than your mother's minivan.
The Original Icon
Acura's first-generation NSX isn't the expensive, mid-engine sports car it once was. For about the same money as a decently appointed Jetta, even you can afford one. Buying the wrong NSX can make you wish you'd bought the Jetta, though, and owning and maintaining one isn't always as inexpensive as you might think. Read on and avoid the shaft should you make the leap into classic Japanese supercardom.
The NSX was made mostly of aluminum, not steel, which means the damage you don't see now will cost you more than you think and that hunting for body filler with a magnet will never work since aluminum still isn't magnetic. Inspect the body under plenty of light and, if it's dark out, wait until tomorrow. Aluminum frames like being hit a whole lot less than steel ones, and fixing them almost never brings them back to their original states.
Don't ignore poor body panel fitment, either. The gaps between the fenders and hood as well as the doors, trunk, and quarter-panels should be equal all around. Impeccable gaps don't mean the car's never been taken apart, but it does mean that whoever might've put it back together might've known what he was doing. Give the front bumper some slack, though. It'll be the brunt of even your first bonehead move behind the wheel.
Older NSX side bolsters are bound to show wear as are the sections of each seat that expands and contracts when reclined. Cracked leather is normal here, and if you're not OK with that, set aside enough dough for the most expensive Recaros you can find; they'll still be cheaper than anything from the NSX parts bin.
Don't be surprised if the visors are coming apart at their seams, the door panel leather is worn, or the center console's finish is peeling. While none of these things should individually spoil a potential sale, know now that you'll pay dearly for interior components later, some of which have already been discontinued. Used Jettas on Craigslist go for about the same price as a new center console.
Make sure the air conditioner blows cold and the heater blows hot. Be sure that the fan blows at each speed and that the digital display works. It's common for older climate control systems to blow only on their high-speed settings, which—big surprise—can cost as much as a grand to replace. Culprits range from the climate control circuit board itself (the capacitors can leak and damage the traces) to worn-out blower motors.
The NSX's Bose sound system, including its speakers, is custom-fitted to the interior, which means adapting aftermarket pieces isn't as simple as it was in your Civic. You'll need to fabricate a custom center console and modify your door panels if you're planning on something other than a 25-year-old tape deck.
Do the windows go up and down? If not, check the window switches and regulator assembly. Both are sold as a single unit and, as such, cost a bunch. Even when fixed, NSX windows won't travel up and down as fast as your Accord's, so don't let slow windows scare you off. Sooner or later, the doors' interior handles and maybe even their levers will snap. Be sure they haven't yet. A single cast-plastic handle will cost you more than $400 from the dealer.
Window moldings and rubber trim wear out and, if you're looking at an early NA1, chances are some of those pieces will need to be replaced. Typical problem areas include the windshield molding that can shrink, although any of the car's rubber is susceptible to wear and tear from years of direct sunlight. Inspect the door, trunk, engine bay, and hood weatherstripping for tears and how well they actually seal. None of these are inexpensive to replace. Listen for excessive wind noise on your test drive; you shouldn't hear much.
How about that dumb-looking shift knob and fake-carbon e-brake handle? If you want the original ones, set aside a stack of Benjamins 10 deep for new pieces.
Finally, gas, clutch, and brake pedals worn to bare metal with an instrument cluster that reads fewer than 20,000 miles will never make sense. Question everything.
That tow hook hidden within the front bumper, has it ever been used? Better find out why. Tows that can be blamed on the powertrain are likely few, but can still happen.
Like most beltdriven Hondas, the C-series timing belt and water pump should be replaced every 90,000 miles (105,000 miles for NA2). If you can't get proof that it was done, plan on doing it now. Honda's conservative with its recommended service intervals, though, so don't expect your timing belt to all of a sudden shred into bits or your water pump to seize up once you pass that mark. As it turns out, cars that are driven on a regular basis are more likely to get more life out of their belts and pumps than those that aren't, which means that NSX that's been boxed up for the last 15 years might need more work than you'd be led to believe. Early NSX water pumps were also recalled by Honda. Find out if the car you're looking at received the replacement and, if it didn't, find out why not.
Pull the engine oil dipstick and oil cap and take a close look at them. Is the oil clean and topped off properly? If not, you may want to second-guess the seller's maintenance methods. Be sure the oil looks like oil; blown head gaskets typically give the oil a caramelized appearance from seeped-through coolant, although that's an unlikely failure point with the NSX.
The factory coolant reservoir is one of two things: cracked or about to crack. The good news is that replacements are fairly inexpensive. The bad news is that you'll probably want some polished-up aftermarket piece. Make sure that if any coolant leaks are present, that's the only place they're coming from. Inspect as many of the 20-plus cooling hoses as you can while the engine's cool. They shouldn't be brittle, hard, or have any hardened coolant crust near their ends. Are all of the spring-loaded OEM clamps still there? If not, what happened to them and who exactly had their hands on this car?
Engine and transmission oil leaks are, for the most part, inexcusable. Honda has one of the most exceptional gasket and sealing systems of any automaker, and leaks are typically signs of neglect. Common points of leakage are the valve cover gaskets, rear camshaft plugs, and VTEC solenoids. The gaskets are cheap as far as gaskets go, but the labor won't be if you don't plan on doing it yourself. Doing any type of maintenance on the rear cylinder head requires dexterity. Be sure and check for leaks after the car's been driven.
As you might expect, aluminum NSX engine mounts are about as expensive as that center console. Lightly apply the throttle with the engine lid propped open, in gear, and with the e-brake engaged. Have a friend look for excessive engine movement under the hood. The drivetrain should have some play, but torn mounts will generally cause some sort of audible knocking sound from an engine that's moving too much.
Some '91 and '92 NSX models suffered from a faulty transmission countershaft bearing snap ring that could eventually lead to catastrophic gearbox failure. Check the transmission's VIN number, located on its top side, to see if it falls within range. Five-speed gearboxes between J4A4-1003542 to J4A4-1005978 are affected. If the one you're looking at does, get proof that it's been fixed or plan on doing it yourself. Symptoms include a transmission that pops out of gear or growling noises during acceleration and deceleration. Transmissions that have more than 100,000 miles on them are more than likely not affected by this, mostly because the damage would've already happened. Check for proper clutch engagement and any potential slippage before you forget.
The Suspension and Brakes
The best thing about the NSX is its suspension. Picking one up with clunks or rattles will never make sense. Question anything that doesn't track straight or isn't properly aligned. The brakes should check out much like any other car would. Be sure they're free of pedal vibrations, modulating, or abnormal sounds upon hard braking. Older NSX ABS systems can also cause problems. Make sure the unit isn't leaking and that the system is free of any malfunction indicator lights or awkward noises or vibrations. It's common for early Honda ABS systems to cycle upon initial startup, but anything more than that should have you worried. Inspect the brake master cylinder and clutch master cylinder. Puddles of fluid inside the cabin near the pedal assembly mean one of them is shot.
Under the Hood
There's not a lot going on under the hood since the engine and transmission are out back. Check the radiator's front side and make sure it's not wasted from years of rocks and debris hitting it. Look at its end tanks for signs of wear or makeshift crack repairs. Is the spare tire there? It should be right between the radiator and the firewall. How about the right battery? The wrong battery can position its terminals dangerously close to the chassis and is a good indicator that something else may have been bungled up.
Buying an NSX is exciting, but never let your emotions get the best of you. A test drive is always important and you should never purchase any car without going on one. See if the seller will allow you to take it out alone or, if he comes, stays quiet, and keeps the radio off.
Now is a good time to fire up the engine and make sure the oil pressure and coolant temperatures check out. Be sure the check engine light actually lights up when the ignition is turned on. If it doesn't, find out why before you buy. If you're firing up the engine cold, now is a good time to listen for any abnormal sounds that might go away once warmed up.
Be sure and start the vehicle under both cold and hot conditions. Sometimes, problems won't reveal themselves under certain conditions. Main relay failures can occur during hot starts, traction control issues while you're driving, and intermittent ECU problems, well, intermittently. Be aware of any full-throttle hesitations or rough idling as those can be traced back to electrical or fuel system gremlins.
Listen for VTEC engagement or any strange engine, drivetrain, or suspension noises. Clicking sounds can be attributed to a damaged axle boot or wheel bearing, which isn't uncommon. Listen for any knocking sounds that go away once the clutch is pressed down. Hear it? If so, plan on yanking the transmission for a new clutch-release bearing—another common Honda issue but not something that should spoil a purchase. However, knocks that don't go away are the ones you really need to worry about.
Besides under the engine hatch, the steering wheel should feel rock solid, even at high speeds and should be responsive and tight when cornering. Make sure the transmission shifts smoothly and that the engine revs up freely. The car should track straight and pretty much handle better than just about anything you've ever driven. If it doesn't, find out why. Shut the car off and immediately fire it right back up. It should crank easily when cold or hot. Let the engine run and check the tailpipes for excessive smoke; there shouldn't be any.
Don't be afraid of a high-mileage NSX. Despite its supercar status, it's still built by Honda and, despite whether or not NSX fans are willing to admit it, the C30A and C32B NSX engines have much more in common with Honda's most reliable Civic, Integra, and Accord engines than they might think.