By on August 15, 2011


Jeffrey writes:

Hi Sajeev,

I had a question regarding one of the vehicles I own and the potential for head gasket issues. Suprisingly, this is not in regards to the Subaru!

We have a 1998 Acura 3.2TL, a great vehicle and perfect sized. I am the second owner and it does have just over 134,000 miles. It was first purchased in Boise, with an easy commute…spent some time in California with a more grueling San Jose commute, and back in Boise for 6 years. I drive it pretty easily on a 20 mile, roundtrip, commute every other day and a couple trips on the weekend. I enjoy this car. It has the classic Honda feel to it; low cowl, buttons and switches with a fluid movement, handles nicely, double-wishbone suspension, longitudinal drivetrain means no torque steer, heated mirrors/seats, excellent climate control (cold A/C). The only item(s) that do need replacing are the shocks. But overall, I’ve put minimal money into a car I purchased for $4500. Only accessory I added was a PIE Hon-Aux auxiliary port. Only dislikes are excessive wind noise in winter, due to frameless windows. Yet, I always liked frameless windows on a four-door…Subaru has them too.

Since I’ve had for a few years, I’ve always had it serviced at the local Honda shop and he takes a look over everything carefully. ATF was recently changed, not a flush but all new fluid (3 drain/fills). EGR was replaced due to triggering CEL, belts and a pulley have been replaced, brake pads/rotors and 2-year-old Continentals. Transmission shifts smoothly, engine runs strong…only a few times I’ve floored it and run it to redline but even just 200hp, you don’t really need too.

I feel like everything on the car will last quite a long time, but I’ve read about a few people having headgasket issues with this engine in older Legends and early TLs. Do you know if this is a widespread issue, in the back of my head I feel like it could be…but only from reading a few forums. Forums don’t sample all the owners of a car model.

The Honda mechanic I visit says he has never seen a Legend or TL with a blown headgasket, but those people may not be going to him or may be dumping them. He also stated that the engine looks to be in great shape, the only visible leaks are from the rear main seal, which amounts to a dime sized oil spot in winter months. And a slight seep from the rear side of the left cylinder bank (I’ve noticed this on Toyota Tacoma V6 models with high mileage).

I have not seen any irregular behavior yet. Such as an erratic tempature gauge, overheating, or white smoke. I really like the car and would like to get another 5 years or so out of it, is it worth spending a few grand to replace the head gaskets? And the valve cover gasket too. I’d like to think so, with everything else on the vehicle being sound. Starters, alternators, pumps, compressors…those are bound to go out on any vehicle.

I feel like there is always a point of diminishing returns on a vehicle, at 13 years and 134,000 miles, I’m not sure if I’ve hit that point. Have I?

Sajeev answers:

I generally feel these models are well crafted for luxury and well engineered for durability: a former co-worker of mine is in your shoes but with well over 200k on his TL’s odometer.  So listen to the dude with a 16-year-old car with 172,000 miles: the point of diminishing returns is absolutely, entirely in your head.

You will know it when you hit that point. But I’m here to convince you that, with proper upkeep with a wise mechanic, you’ve got a long way to go.

Eventually you will reach the point where the repairs will outpace the time value of money lost in downtime, but I just don’t see that happening any time soon.  Head gaskets are not a common problem from my (limited) forum searching, and you really don’t have a lot of miles on yours. If I were you, I’d start worrying about head gaskets after another 100,000 miles. Or after you (unwittingly) overheat the motor while driving for an extended period of time. Not that I expect that to happen…

That’s a nice car, by the way. Keep on lovin’ it. Say yes to replacing any and all part that is wearing out, if you trust your mechanic’s word.  From what I’m reading, the shocks and valve (cam) cover gaskets should be on your hit list.  But also trust yourself: you know what part is not behaving like new anymore, you are the one who knows when something feels different.

Bonus! A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

Years from now, you will need a new car to keep you on time for your job. Or for your family needs.  Whatever that need shall be, the time is now to think of your back up plan. I did just that in a recent New or Used column. Or at least I alluded to it. But I digress…

I’d start thinking about what you’d want in the distant future, maybe plan on keeping this Acura as a “spare car” as you’ve invested far more than its actual worth…to anyone else but yourself. It’d make a good part time daily driver, letting you can buy something completely different: maybe something totally looney!  Just think about it before you have to take action.

Send your queries to [email protected]. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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19 Comments on “Piston Slap: Trust In Yourself, Love Thy Acura...”

  • avatar

    Thanks for the sage advise Sajeev. You ease my mind a bit, and I do think about the return on investment. If everything else on the car was falling apart, I’d junk it when a major repair came about. But, that isn’t the case and it is worth that major repair (should it ever occur). Luckily, this isn’t a car we have to depend on, as it’s not the main family vehicle (the Outback is).

    It did start to get above it’s normal resting spot on the temp gauge. Needed a new radiator cap and it’s been great for the past 6 weeks since that occured, even in triple digit temps.

  • avatar

    Ahh yes, an Acura that is handsome, reliable, affordable and comfortable. Will we say the same things about the current generation of Acuras in 15 yeas? I have my doubts.

    I will say this, If you aren’t experiencing any issues, and you are only seeing dime size seepage, I would leave good enough alone. When the time comes to replace your head gaskets, you will know it (large leaks, mysterious oil/coolant consumption, smoke, etc). You mentioned that you rarely make trips to redline. My grandfather used to say, if you want it to last twice as long, drive it half as hard. You seem to be doing that already.

  • avatar

    I don’t know if this would be true for an Acura of this vintage, but mentioning the dime-sized oil leak, I wouldn’t touch that – go to Walmart and buy one of those galvanized flat drip sheets and keep that under your car and monitor how much oil is actually leaking. To go to the expense of fixing that at this point may be opening the floodgates to exposing other problems that may not be problems at all.

    Aside from that, I agree with the advice above from redliner.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s only in the winter, and I believe from the rear main seal. Hasn’t leaked since April (when garage temps were over 50 again).

      I would monitor by checking every morning and then wiping it clean (I like a clean garage floor).

  • avatar

    +a million on keeping it around even IF you do buy a new(er) car down the road. I terribly miss my son’s 1997 Tercel (198k and counting) that made for a stupendous daily driver and back-up whenever the newer whips were being serviced. That’s insurance you just can’t turn down, and as has been said, you’ve more than gotten well beyond what you could hope to sell if for in value. Keep up with your maintenance regime, and that TL will go for another 100,000 easy. And (opinions being what they are these days)…you own an Acura that still maintains some semblance of optical dignity!

  • avatar

    Can’t speak to the seepage, but Sajeev’s advice is spot on.

    Said goodbye to a ’96 Accord with 100k more miles than yours; a car with far less lux and driving dynamics (it may have been the most boring car in the history of automobiles,) but a car that was rock-solid until the last yeah of ownership. Should have said goodbye a few months earlier in my case, but the car was almost as loyal as my black lab. Keep an eye on your fluids, and enjoy it.

    1) Nobody makes nineties-era Honda’s anymore, least of all Honda.
    2) Now’s a great time to save for the next whip; this whip will give you plenty of time to save a lot of scratch. Or do the phase-in and keep your new whip mint and use this car as your mileage-sink.
    3) Some day, probably >5 years from now, your car will let you know when it is time to move on. When you cross the 200k thresh hold, though, strange things happen with your heart; even when the dashboard is faded and cracked and you’re late to your 9:00 meeting because the radiator pooped the bed, again, it can get hard to say goodbye.

    • 0 avatar

      The emotional point is a funny one. Just yesterday I dropped off our old RX300 at a friend’s garage for him to sell it, with 275,000 miles on the ticker, as we only need one car now and our other is, frankly, a lot newer and nicer. But I practically felt like crying driving her down the highway on the way to the garage, with one of our old CDs in the changer, just as I’d been doing for a lot of the last 10 years.

  • avatar

    If the head gaskets aren’t leaking don’t replace them! Yes you are approaching the point where it doesn’t make good financial sense to keep putting money in the car. Shocks are iffy, if the car is riding and handling bad then go ahead and replace them and make that the last money you spend on it other than fuel and oil. Run it until the tires are at about 25% and get while the getting is good.

  • avatar

    Whitish residue on the oil filler cap used to be a common sign of head gasket wear and might be worth checking. I had a ’94 Acura Integra GS-R and traded it in on something larger after six flawless years of daily driving fun and an 8100-RPM redline.

    What’ll probably get to you before mechanical problems is hard-to-diagnose failures of electrical bits, and wear-out of trim pieces, window gaskets, etc.

  • avatar

    I believe when these cars were new , part of the maintenance schedule was re-torquing the heads at a certain point.

    I assume that was a one-time thing and maybe your car was done because you haven’t seen the problem.

  • avatar

    If you have kids approaching driving age, then definitely hang on to this car. When my ’98 Civic crossed the 200K barrier it stopped being my daily (80 miles)driver and became the teen car for daughter one, daughter two, and soon to be youngest son. It wont die, insurance is (relatively) cheap, and i wont be heartbroken if they have a fender bender in it, perfect.
    Even without kids in the picture there’s no way i’d get rid of this, no way.

  • avatar

    IIRC – the reason why most transverse FWD cars have torque steer is often b/c of unequal length axles. The orientation has less to do with it than that fact. I’ve owned several transverse FWD cars and the ones with equal length axles (meaning they have an intermediate shaft) do not have any torque steer (even in a 2,100 lb FWD car with 180 hp).

  • avatar

    Yes! This is the perfect car to keep while you buy “something especially loony”.

    Get that old 914 or Karmann Ghia or Super Beetle you’ve always wondered about. I myself went with the Miata/Fit mix. You’ve got the perfect counterweight to the selfish sports car. Just be aware that the Acura might take a giant dump, so don’t go too overboard.

    And remember to lose the extra insurance! You’ll never find another Acura as nice as yours if it ever gets in a wreck. Put that extra insurance money into a Neon that you can gut and race.

  • avatar

    The tips I’ve heard for getting the most life out of your head gasket (yes I own a Subaru) are:
    1. Drain and fill the coolant every 30,000 miles or 1 year. A bit on the conservative side of things, but depending on the design this should be pretty easy DIY maintenance.
    2. Replace the battery every 5 years max, due to stray voltages and galvanic corrosion. I’m not sure how true this is but most batteries should probably be replaced that often anyway.
    3. Subaru recommends coolant conditioner every time the coolant is changed. Subaru sells its own brand for something like $3 a bottle but I’m sure any other brand does the same thing.

    Really its pretty cheap insurance against premature head gasket failure.

    • 0 avatar

      We use the coolant conditioner in our Subaru, I was recommended against using it in the Acura (by the Subaru dealer mechanic who moved over from the Honda-Acura dealer). Great peices of advice though, thanks.

  • avatar

    I had a similar dilemma – and Sajeev, once again, is spot on. My wife’s old ’01 Camry with nearly 150k on it is solid – and perfect backup car, which it is performing while my shifter cables are replaced (again). It gets driven downtown by my wife, where valets bang the bumpers (got $500 from the parking garage owner when they punctured the bumper but never fixed it). There is absolutely nothing wrong with the car; it is mechanically in great shape and should continue to be so for another 50k easily.

    As far as shocks, I replaced the entire strut/spring set with Monroe Quickstruts, which were not very expensive but additionally, the labor was not very high because they bolt in and out – no need for spring compressor. The car drove like new. One of the mountain brackets broke; I need to have it replaced under their lifetime warranty (I’ll still have to pay for an hour of shop labor) but it made a giant difference in how the car rode and handled. I highly recommend this repair.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I can verify “quickstruts” making an old car feel new. Worked wonders on my 1997 Escort wagon which only had 70,000 miles on it but was over 10 years old.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    You have reached that mileage/age standpoint where every day you drive the car is a bonus day without a car payment. Keep driving, keep enjoying.

  • avatar

    I enjoy reading Piston Slap! Nothing better than near depreciation-free motoring for me. Just wondering, this question may have come up before. I ask this to all of the Piston Slap or The Truth About Cars Masses. What are the top 10 reliable, and/or easy to repair beaters from 1987-up? I live in Ontario Canada and 1987 is the last year that emissions testing is required for vehicle permit renewal. Anything worth driving before 1987 is either turned to dust or has reached “survivor” status and worth more than $4000 safety certified and emissions tested. If there is a link to the answer to this question please post it.
    thanks in advance

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