Aircraft Review

February 2018 Issue




Ovation Ultra: Fast, Efficient, Refined

Mooney bumped up the power, added a pilot-side door and tarted up the avionics and interior. For some buyers, the combination will resonate.

A popular (and lazy) journalistic toss away is to describe a company as “owning” a market. Yet no company does, not even 800-pound simians like Garmin and Cirrus. There are always buyers swimming against the tide and in the world of aviation, Mooney has made a business of scooping them up; a flea in a world of elephants.

Now, after an infusion of Chinese capital, Mooney is campaigning with two new models, the Ovation Ultra and Acclaim Ultra, the latest refinement of a basic design idea that emerged in the 1960s. With the addition of a second door on the pilot’s side, a dose-up in horsepower and new avionics and interior, the M20U Ovation will go head to head with the Cirrus SR22, the normally aspirated airplane that accounts for nearly half of Cirrus sales. (For Mooney, sales are lopsidedly tilted toward the turbocharged Acclaim, evidently because Mooney buyers are more speed obsessed than Cirrus owners.) 

Who’s the Ovation for, then? Probably for owners who avoid the Rockies and the Sierras and would rather snort chili powder than fly with a cannula poked in their nostrils. And surprisingly, some people who can afford to spend most of a million dollars for a new airplane actually want one that’s efficient. I recently flew the new airplane with Lee Drumheller, a sales exec with Premier Aircraft.

Reinvention Again

Mooney is the aerospace equivalent of the Phoenix, having endured bankruptcies, sales and reorganizations and each time reinventing the basic design. The M20Cs/Es were stretched to become the 201, the 201 was stretched to become the “long body” Ovation and Acclaim and now the Ovation has been tweaked yet again to become the M20 Ultra.

AMG 2618

It’s similar to the last version of the Ovation, the M20R Ovation 3. It appeared in 2008 just before Mooney went dark on production after the economic downturn. At that point, Mooney had tweaked the IO-550-G from 280 HP to 310 HP, with no full-power limitations. But other changes were cosmetic.

The Ultra is a more comprehensive redo, according to Mooney. The pilot-side door is the biggest change and both doors are wider, so the rear passengers’ shot into the back is easier. Both composite doors have new latching mechanisms with a robust rod to open and close the door with a thunk.

As shown on page 6, Mooney engineered the door by shuffling around the welded 4130 tubing used for the forward fuselage cage. Aft of the rear seats, the airframe is traditional monocoque riveted skins over frames. 

During this rework, Mooney realized that to compete, it would have to squeeze build hours out of manufacturing a high-parts-count airframe. In the name of efficiency, it replaced the metal skins over the forward cabin with a single-piece composite buildup. While this is a wash on weight, it allows workers open access during the final phase of construction before the cabin is closed in. Also, the composite is clipped on, rather than riveted, saving more labor.

1 Vulcanair 1 static grass

Efficiency combined with speed derive from the 310-HP Continental IO-550, lower photo, swinging a three-blade Hartzell prop. Standard panel features Garmin G1000 NXi with a pedestal-mounted keyboard,middle photo. Precise Flight SpeedBrakes, bottom photo, are standard equipment.

The company is bullish enough on volume—and perhaps anticipating resumption of the stalled M10 trainer project—to have installed a new composite-curing autoclave at Kerrville. Thus, as many companies are doing, it’s taking back in-house the manufacture of parts that were previously farmed out.

New Stuff

Other big changes in the Ultra include a new interior and a new avionics suite. The seats offer more lumbar support and are upholstered in a style best described as luxury- sports-sedan plush. And yes, getting into them is easier, although I found the ingress/egress from the left side slightly weird after years of sliding in first from the right side.

As we reported in the February 2017 issue of Aviation Consumer, the Garmin G1000 NXi is an evolutionary upgrade to the G1000 suite that has been standard in virtually all new aircraft for more than a decade. 

Two things about it are immediately noticeable: It’s brighter and the screens refresh much faster. It’s also quicker to initialize, so no more idling on the ramp waiting for the navigator to find itself. It also sports some additional features, including a pedestal-mounted keyboard for input and a runway approach feature for VFR flying sophisticated enough for the autopilot—the GFC 700—to even fly vertical profiles. The display includes some new capabilities such as thumbnail data displays inside the HSI and highway-in-the-sky boxes. Glass panels require backup instrumentation and Mooney does that with the Mid-Continent MD302 SAM. 

5 Brown_Interior_small02

The G1000 is so complete that the avionics option list is short. It’s equipped standard with ADS-B In/Out and the Flight Stream 510 cockpit connectivity option that allows uploading data from tablet apps to the G1000. Garmin’s GTS-800 active traffic is an option, but Drumheller says that the ADS-B TIS-B works so well that active traffic is superfluous.

Also upgraded is the electrical system and panel switchery. Previous long-body Mooneys have had two batteries and two alternators and so does the Ultra. The backup alternator has a 30-amp capacity and will operate an essential bus that’s clearly segregated on the CB panel mounted in front of the copilot seat. The old-style rocker switches have been supplanted by modern, backlighted switches and the panel itself is illuminated with LEDs for operation after dark. 

Mooney also redesigned the flap and rudder trim controls. The flaps are handled via a flap-shaped, two-position switch on the lower panel and the electric rudder trim via a simple knob. Positions of these surfaces are annunciated on the G1000, adding to what can be a cluttered display of information. 

Performance, Payload

Nothing exists in a vacuum, which is to say Mooney’s success, at least some it, will come from siphoning sales from Cirrus and perhaps Cessna’s TTx. How would the three look to a potential buyer comparing them?

6 continental_522415_DxO

First, payload. The Ovation we flew had a useful load of 1050 pounds on a gross weight of 3368 pounds. Standard fuel is 100 gallons, so with full tanks, that leaves 450 pounds for people and stuff. The Ultra, then, is a two-person airplane with generous baggage or a three-person ride if down fueled by about 20 gallons. The SR22—the direct competitor—has a useful load of about 1200 pounds on a gross of 3600 pounds, so it’s not really a seats full, tanks full airplane, but can get there will little down fueling. 

This, in part, may account for why Cirrus dominates the single-engine high-performance market and why sales of the SR22 and turbocharged SR22T are almost evenly split. Even though surveys consistently find that most piston GA trips carry just one or two people, buyers apparently want the option of backseats they can really use.

Except some would rather go farther and faster with the rear seats full of stuff or nothing at all. These are the probable Mooney buyers.

Head to head against the SR22, the Ovation Ultra flies farther, is faster, and burns less gas than the Cirrus. For all-out range on full tanks, with a 45-minute reserve, the Ovation Ultra can manage 1154 still-air miles against the Cirrus’ 872 miles—a range delta of 32 percent. It will get there faster, too.

7 Speed brakes

Non-turbocharged aircraft typically reach their cruise stride at 8000 to 10,000 feet. Climbing above that without a turbocharger dings cruise speed because of diminishing engine power. Still, the Ultra is a solid 190-knot airplane at these altitudes using best-power throttle settings. Dial it back to best economy and the speed is still 180 knots. The SR22 is eight to 10 knots slower. 

It’s also a little thirstier. At 8000 feet and 75 percent power, the SR22 will cruise at 180 knots and 17.8 gallons. The Mooney will do 190 knots on 15.9 GPH. Thus is the payoff of a lighter, smaller airframe with landing gear that folds up. And by the way, the Ultra’s gear is the same as Mooney has ever used, a tube-and-bellcrank design driven by an electric motor. 

The backup is the same cable-pull system on the floor between the two seats. Along with the Bonanza system, this has proven to be a reliable, almost fault-free design. Our report on gear-up landings in the October 2017 issue unearthed plenty of Mooney gear-up landings, but few if any were caused by mechanical problems unrelated to what was between the pilot’s ears.

Flight Impressions

If I was expecting my flight in the Ovation Ultra to offer revelations, I was to be disappointed. But I didn’t and I wasn’t. It’s no surprise that the Ultra flies exactly like any of the modern Mooneys of recent years. Actually, anybody who had flown an old 1960s E or F model would sense the early DNA in the Ultra.

8 Acclaim in Production

The photo above shows how Mooney opened up the left side of the welded cage and added additional tubing to carry the loads around the door frame. The overall shape of the forward section of the aircraft also expanded slightly and the doors are four inches wider than in previous models. Mooney told us its structural analysis shows that the airframe is actually stronger than before the modification.

For a fast airplane, the Ultra feels lightish, accelerates well on the runway and once it has gathered itself up in the way Mooneys seem to do, it climbs well. On the videotape I’m heard to exclaim about a 2000 FPM initial climb, but 1500 FPM is more like it. Mooneys are not light on the controls and neither is the Ultra, once air loads impinge on the surfaces. The control circuitry is the standard rod-and-tube which is surgically precise, but not feather light. 

I’m sure most owners will fly the airplane through the GFC 700 and this probably makes sense

because the NXi system requires no small amount of head-down time to manage. Its operating logic will be familiar to anyone used to the original G1000, but learning the keypad and a few new features takes time. Shared with the touchscreen G3000 used in more expensive airplanes is the highway-in-the-sky feature. Personally, I can take it or leave it. The knack is to not try to fly up the center of the boxes but to use them as basic visual orientation to where the desired course lies in space. To me, it’s just another form of needle chasing.

For any pilot capable of flying a target airspeed, obtaining a satisfying landing in a Mooney is of little challenge. It will float forever if the roundout starts faster than 80 knots, so I prefer to use about 75 over the fence. If you force it on before it’s ready and land in a flat attitude, it will wheelbarrow with predictably ugly results.

9 Ovation Essential Bus

The Ovation Ultra is equipped with two alternators and has an essential bus, upper left, so the backup can handle the load. Nestled between two NXi displays is a Mid-Continent SAM backup EFIS.

When discussing interior cabin feel, Mooney acolytes will divert the conversation to the cabin’s generous legroom while insisting it’s nearly as wide as other airplanes. Well, no. The cabin is still on the tight side, which I especially noticed when turning to retrieve a camera from the backseat. This still requires a little cogging with the front seat passenger.

Thanks to the NXi and elimination of the panel annunciators, the glareshield is an inch lower, opening up the forward view a little. But it’s still more constricted than either the Cirrus or any of the Diamonds. The windows, by the way, are slightly larger in the Ultra. You’d probably notice if the older airplane was side by side. 

Detailing in the interior is superb throughout, especially the seat construction and panel control layout. I could do without the electric rudder trim, but I suppose it’s an expected feature in an airplane this expensive. After years of relying on aftermarket engine management technology, Garmin has finally gotten it right in the NXi. The leaning display is bright, visible and easy to use. Speedbrakes are standard on these aircraft and are useful if you have to slam dunk the airplane. Otherwise, I prefer the more civilized method of planning the descent and wringing a few knots out of that expensively gained potential energy.

10 Panel layout Backup

Ergonomically, Mooney has done about all it can with the M20 airframe. The seats, as noted, are much improved and cabin ventilation is abundant. Air conditioning is available as a $28,900 option, but with two doors, I’m not sure it’s needed given the gales that blow through on the ground and the Ovation’s rapid climb rate to cooler, drier air. 

Oxygen is a $9900 option, but again, of dubious use for an airplane happy at 8000 feet. The same applies to the $64,990 TKS known-ice package. That system costs both speed and payload and may not be a good choice for this airplane. The Ovation’s base price is $689,000 and Premier’s Drumheller said typical invoices are in the low $700s.

Efficiency Compared

Mooney has always claimed that its aircraft are both faster and more efficient than the competition and the chart above seems to confirm the point. 

We developed it from data published in the POHs of the top five high-performance single-engine aircraft: the Mooney Acclaim and Ovation, the Cirrus SR22 and SR22T and the Cessna TTx. The data show that the Ovation is faster than the SR22 at all altitudes, regardless of power settings. Moreover, because it carries more fuel and burns less of it for the equivalent speed, the Ovation has about 30 percent greater maximum range than the Cirrus does. Worth noting is how much faster the Acclaim is than the SR22T. At 25,000 feet, its best speed is 242 knots, compared to 213 knots for the SR22T. However, both Cirrus models carry more than the Mooneys.

13 Speed Graph for Ovation CMYK REVISED

Conclusion

Comparing the specs and performance of the Ovation Ultra with the four other airplanes in this market space sharpens the focus on what it’s good at. It’s clearly a measurably more efficient airplane across the board, with the exception of payload. The Ovation Ultra flies farther, faster and on less fuel than its primary competitor, the SR22.

The tradeoff? It’s just not a practical four-person airplane and even for two people, the cabin isn’t as commodious as the Cirrus. More than one would-be buyer of a Mooney has told us this, even for those looking for used airplanes. And, of course, the SR22 has the parachute, the Mooney does not. CAPS is a strong sales point for Cirrus.

But for a buyer who wants to knock off a 1000-mile cross country in a day without fooling around in the flight levels and do it on minimal fuel, the Ovation Ultra is perfectly matched to that desire. And for those who want raw speed, there’s always the Acclaim. We’ll examine that in a future report. 

Click here to see a video review of the Mooney!