Used Car Buying Guide: Acura NSX

1990+ Honda(EU)/Acura(US) NSX

The Ferrari, as Soichiro Would've Done It.

1990+ Honda(EU)/Acura(US) NSX

The Ferrari, as Soichiro Would've Done It.

It's a tired automotive cliche at this point, but the NSX was one of those rare automobiles that turned a segment of the market on it's head when it arrived.  Sure, it's a narrow segment - race-bred sports cars for the street, with pricetags to match - but it was a storied segment with nearly impossible market penetration.  Buyers in this market were very loyal; they weren't going to replace their 328 GTS with a 911 Turbo.  They'd get a 348.  Then probably a 355.

2005 Honda NSX

So for a Japanese manufacturer to offer a car which upset the supercar market, in 1990, was a big deal.  The NSX was first and foremost a flagship for Honda, who was just then coming into their own as a technological leader in the market.  It was a clean-sheet design that showed clear trickledown effects from Honda's F1 program.  It introduced some new technologies to the market, and was an absolutely superb steer to boot.  While the NSX was north of a $90,000 vehicle when it went out of production in 2004, early examples are just as good as later models, and can be had for family-sedan prices today.  They're reliable as clockwork as well, which makes them a relatively practical option today.  This guide will tell you a little bit about the NSX and it's history, what to look for, what they're like to own, how much to pay, and what you can do with the thing when you get one.  If that sounds good, read on.

Background:

The NSX program started in 1984, with the debut of the Pininfarina-designed HP-X concept car.  This forward-thinking concept sports car had an aluminum chassis, and a mid-mounted 2.0L V6 derived from Honda's Formula 2 race engine.  The crisp, angular styling was a show-stopper, and Honda began development of the NS-X projected based on it's success.

1984 Honda HPX Concept

The NSX's development team is full of big-time names.  Lead development was the job of Ken Okuyama, who also lead up the S2000 project a decade later.  The overall goal of the car was to provide supercar-level performance with everyday driveability and Honda-level reliability.

1989 Acura NS-X Concept

Some of the people that worked on the NSX's design include the late, great Ayrton Senna (who won the F1 World Championship three times in Honda-powered cars).  It is said that Senna was who advised Honda to further stiffen the NSX's chassis, which is why the road-going NSX provides levels of feedback that are absent in some race cars.

Also on the design team was Bobby Rahal, who provided further chassis feedback.

Innovations

The NSX had a lot of "firsts" for a street car.  For one thing, it was the first production vehicle equipped with variable valve timing - or in Honda speak, "Variable Timing and lift, Electronic Control."  Yup.  VTec.  This is where it started.

VTec is a system of alternating between two camshaft profiles, and when it came out, it was completely revolutionary.  Each cam has two different profiles ground onto it; a mild profile for smooth low-rpm operation, and a much more aggressive profile for high-rpm operation.  The changeover point from one profile to the other is determined by the ECU, which takes into account oil pressure, engine coolant temperature, engine speed, vehicle speed, throttle position, and some other variables.  When the ECU determines it's time for the "hot" side of the cam, oil pressure locks a pin in place which binds the high-rpm follower to the low-rpm one, in effect locking the "hot" side in place.

That's a whole lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, and if you're really interested in it, you can read about it here.  The overall effect is a feeling of having two different engines.  Below the cam profile change-over point, the engine operates just like a regular, smooth Japanese powerplant.  Above the changeover, it goes hell-for-leather, throwing a piercing battle cry and hurtling for the horizon.   It's addicting.  What's most surprising is that Honda has never had a single warranty claim on their VTec system, which is frankly amazing.

The NSX was also revolutionary for being constructed entirely of aluminum, which was unheard of in 1990.  The chassis was an aluminum space-frame monocoque, and the body was also aluminum.  The NSX required an intensive 23-step painting process for proper adhereing and layering, but the end result was beautiful: ever see any old NSX's with peeling clearcoat?  Nope.

The NSX also used aluminum suspension components to save weight, and was the first production car to have titanium connecting rods.  Oh, and it was gorgeous.

Performance

The NSX is fast by today's standards, but it was absurd by 1990's standards.  Thanks to it's energetic powerplant and light weight, the V6-powered NSX could keep up with much heavier, more cylinder-endowed supercars that cost twice as much.

The engine in the NSX, named C30A, was mounted transversely behind the passenger seats, partially in the cabin.  What it lacked in size and outright power it made up for in refinement and flexibility.

This 90° V6 was very forward-thinking for it's time.  The block was an open-deck design, made out of aluminum (as were the heads.)  The titanium connecting rods reduced internal weight, making high-rpm operation reliable.  Of course, it uses four-valve heads.

1992 Honda NSX 3.0 C30A engine

This engine produced 270 horsepower @ 7300 rpm, and a torque peak of 210 lb-ft (285nM) @ 6500 rpm.  This six-cylinder powerhouse would wind all the way out to an astronomical 8000rpm, which was race-car territory for 1990.

The NSX originally came only with a short-ratio 5 speed manual gearbox, although later cars were offered with a six-speed, or a quite tragic 4-speed automatic.

Since the NSX only weighed 3009lbs (1365kg) from the factory, the NSX was quite quick, with a power/weight ratio of 197bhp/ton.  Factory figures for the NSX are a 5.7 second 0-60 time, 6 seconds to 100km/h, an elapsed time of 14 seconds flat in the quarter mile, and a respectable terminal velocity of 168 miles an hour.  These numbers were relatively conservative; most magazines that tested the NSX back when it was new got 0-60 times in the low 5-second range, and quarter mile times in the mid-13 second range.

Still, the NSX wasn't about straight-line power.  It's competitors at the time more than had it covered (RX7, 300ZX Twin Turbo, Supra Turbo, LT1 Corvette, etc.)  The NSX really shone when it was pointed down a curvy backroad - although it was equally at home on the racetrack.  Owners "complained" about the tendancy of the early NSX's to snap-oversteer in a corner.  I find this hilarious; with a rearward weight bias, staggered tire sizes, and stiff suspension, of course it's prone to snap oversteer.

Updates

The NSX was in production for 15 years, and only received mild updates.  There are two ways to look at this: one perspective says "The NSX was a perfect design, and didn't need any changes."  Most Americans tended to regard the NSX later in it's production as overpriced and underpowered compared to it's competitors, which had progressed quite a bit.  The Ferrari 348 became the 375-horsepower F355, which became the 394-horsepower 360 Modena, which became the 485-horsepower F430.  The 911 Turbo went from an air-cooled 355 horsepower rear-wheel drive model, up to the water-cooled, twin-turbo, all-wheel drive 996 generation.

Still, some improvements and additions were made over time.  1995 brought in the availability of the NSX-T, a targa-roof variant.  This model was heavier, had softer suspension settings, and a less rigid chassis - the closed-roof models are generally preferred by NSX enthusiasts.

1997 Acura NSX

1997 was the first mechanical update to the NSX.  The C30A was replaced by the C32B, which was an enlarged (3.2L) engine.  Differences include 2mm longer stroke, FRM-enforced pistons for better cooling, and larger valves.  Power increased from 270@7300rpm to 290@7100rpm, and torque jumped from 210lb-ft (285nM)@6500rpm to 221lb-ft (304nM) at 5500rpm.  These higher numbers with lower peaks, in combination with the new 6-speed close-ratio manual transmission introduced with the 3.2L engine, quickened up the acceleration.  3.2L NSX's are capable of low five-second 0-60 times, and low-13 second quarter miles.

Along with the larger engine, the NSX's brakes were enlarged from 12" to 13" in the front in 1997, and larger (17") alloy wheels were adapted to clear the bigger stoppers.

The only other significant changes arrived in 2002, when a minor facelift brought fixed headlights with xenon projector lighting, and larger wheels.

2005 Acura NSX-T

The NSX went out of production in late 2005, with a total of just over 18,000 produced in it's 15-year run.

Aftermarket

Keep in mind, the NSX was a  top-of-the-line halo car for Honda when it came out, so there wasn't a WHOLE lot to improve upon.  Still, there's an aftermarket for the NSX.  It's a bit limited, and things are pricey, but you can get more power and performance out of your NSX if you know where to look.

Step one is definetely an exhaust system.  While the NSX has a nice "snarl" from the factory, there are few more impressive noises than a C30A with an uncorked exhaust running up through the gears - a sound you won't soon forget.  Like this:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaRGwtQ9tG0

Suspension options are plentiful for the NSX.  Can you say Tein remote-resevoir coilovers?

Second-Hand Values

Considering it's high-end nature, the NSX still retains an impressive amount of it's original value.  NSX's in the US start in the upper teens on AutoTrader in the US - the lowest priced is a 1992 example with 104k on the clock for $17,995.  What's most surprising  is the number of high-mileage NSX's for sale today - these cars actually get driven.  Find me a Ferrari with more than 100k on the clock that runs reliably, and I'll be surprised.

Prices for later 3.2L cars are considerably higher, not necessarily in proportion to the small added performance gains.  Prices for these later cars usually hover in the low-to-mid 40k range.

NSX's in the UK are much harder to come by, due to the small overall number imported.  At the time of writing, there were only 7 NSX's for sale in the whole of the UK on AutoTrader.co.uk.  Prices range from £12,750 for a 76k mileage '92L 3.0L car with an automatic, up to £32,999 for an '02 3.2L car with a 6 speed and 38k on the clock.

One thing about the NSX's second hand values - due to the small overall production numbers, values vary quite widely.  They also vary more than normal cars depending on the region, so if you're interested, don't grab the first car that pops up!

Things To Watch For

The NSX is quite reliable, but one thing you have to remember about second hand cars used to be quite pricey - they still have supercar-sized repair and maintenance bills.

With the NSX, the weak spot is all that damn aluminum.  It makes repairs much more difficult, and expensive.  For one thing, the aluminum body means a large percentage of body shops won't touch the car.  TIG welding capabilities are a must.  Painting aluminum panels is a lot more time-consuming and labor intensive than regular bodywork, so resprays will be pricey.

Also, if it's been in a wreck significant enough to bend the chassis, even if it's been back on a frame it might not be quite straight.  Aluminum is much less resilient than steel, and doesn't like getting hit.  A car with poorly-repaired crash damage could be a potential money pit down the road, so be careful and get a CarFax (and a pre-purchase inspection, if you can.)

Mechanically, not so many worries.  Early NSX's had some problems with the ABS control unit, so make sure it's working right.  The clutch master cylinder tends to leak at high mileage, and this will show up as liquid pooling under the dashboard - check for that.

Drivetrain-wise, not a lot of worries.  Some early NSX's with the 5-speed had problems with a failing countershaft bearing snap ring, but only certain '91 and '92 models were affected.  If the car pops out of gear randomly, or makes whining noises under acceleration or deceleration, this might be the problem.

Timing belts and water pumps need replacement on a 90,000 mile schedule.  Don't skip this; a new C30A is a lot more expensive than a belt, water pump, and labor charge, I promise.  Clutches do wear out, but it's not a frequent problem with the NSX.  The motors are reliable as tax day; it is a Honda, after all.

Keep these things in mind, and you can get a good example of one of the best-designed sports cars ever made, for about as much as you'd pay for a new Corolla.  Sound tempting?  I thought so.

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