Mooney Versus Bonanza

Beech and Mooney drivers yammer incessantly about which model is better. We settle it once and for all.

Overheard in the airport caf: I don’t know how you can fly an airplane with the tail on backwards.

At least the tail doesnt fall off.

Yeah? Well, your mother wears combat boots!

And so goes the seemingly circular debate between Bonanza and Mooney pilots. On the surface, its good-natured one-up-manship, the sort of banter any self-respecting pilot is expected to engage in while the kitchen rustles up the $100 hamburger.

But deep in their hearts, the pilots of both Mos and Bos don’t really believe the other guys airplane is inferior. In a moment of quiet reflection, theyll concede that the other brand is a broken down piece of crap that never should have gotten loose from the factory.

Were not sure why or when this enmity developed but we know it exists. Controllers we know only half-jokingly tell us there’s a definite Mooney and Bonanza attitude and the two arent the same. Why, for instance, don’t Cessna 210 owners banter with Saratoga drivers or Skylane guys dual with Archer pilots? Who can say?

In the interests of lending some objectivity to the debate for the odd potential buyer who might actually believe one side or the other, herewith is a warts-and-all comparison of Mooneys and Bonanzas. Up front, we’ll declare an interest: The company airplane is a Mooney 201 but not being brand loyalists to any degree, we’ll admit we picked it for one overriding reason: Were cheap.

Both HPSEs
Both the Bonanza and the Mooney occupy a market segment known in the trade as HPSE or high-performance, single-engine. Its only a mild exaggeration to say thats about all they have in common, which makes the debate between owners of each all the more puzzling.

Mooneys have always enjoyed a reputation for being the fastest airplanes on the lot (they arent), cheap to operate (they are), with good handling (debatable) and relatively bulletproof on the maintenance and reliability front. (A toss-up.)

Bonanzas, on the other hand, are seen as the crme de la crme across all fronts of aircraft ownership, including being good load haulers (not really), delightful to fly (they are) and far more comfortable than most other singles, (true) and overall, a triumph of light aircraft design. (Debatable; they have design oversights.)

Any comparison of the two types is complicated by the wide range in model variation. In both cases, the models vary enough over the years to represent almost entirely different airplanes.

To compare the two, we’ll limit our focus to our own 1980 Mooney M20J and a 1982 F33 Bonanza, airplanes that were essentially competitors when new. The F33 has been modified with an TCM IO-550 engine from Beryl DShannon but weve flown it with the original IO-520BB.

Even though competitors in the HPSE market, the Bonanza was and remains the high-priced spread, confirming the obvious: Price-wise, if not performance-wise, the Bonanza is a Lexus, the Mooney a Camry. New, the typically equipped 1982 Bonanza sold for $172,000, while the Mooney came out the door at about $101,000 for the same model year.

According to the current Bluebook, neither 1982 model has yet appreciated above its bought-as-new price, but both soon will. The Mooney has retained 92 percent of its value over 17 years while the Bo has done a little better, at 95 percent. (The 1980 models, by the way, have appreciated above their factory new prices. The Mooney sells for 108 percent of its new value, the Bonanza for 121 percent of new value.)

Shopping the market for a 1980 to 1982 Mooney M20J, expect prices in the $88,000 to $93,000 range, with not many decent choices at the lower end of the scale. Bonanzas of the same vintage retail for $154,000 to $164,000, whether in the straight-tail F33 version or the V-tail V35 version. (1982 was the last year for the V-tail; the straight-tail F33 was discontinued in 1994. Mooneys J-model finally bit the dust last year.)

Size and Shape
Although Mooney owners snipe at their Bonanza counterparts by insisting that the cabin width of the two models is identical-more on that later-the Beech fuselage is bigger and heavier and this ultimately translates into more comfort, in our view.

The F33 is 26 feet 8 inches long compared to the Mooneys 24 feet 8 inches. If you figure that will give you more room in a T-hangar, youre only partially correct. The Mooney has almost a three-foot greater wingspan than the Bonanza, 36 feet 1 inch versus 33 feet 6 inches.

So despite its apparent largeness, the Bonanza is actually easier to maneuver around a tight ramp area, where width matters more than length. Also, the Bos steering mechanism yields a tighter, more precise turning radius.

Although the Mooneys tail is actually an inch taller than the Bonanzas, the latter sits much higher off the ground on tallish and beefy landing gear. This gives the Bonanza a much bigger feel than the close-to-the-ground Mooney and contributes to the passenger perception of a larger, more solid ride. It also means the pax have to heave themselves up on that lofty wing. The Bos step itself is 18-inches above the ramp, only two inches lower than the Mooneys wing surface. The Mooneys step is a low-slung 10 inches.

Now, about that cabin: Measured side-to-side at the window level, Mooney owners say the cabins are the same width. Well, not quite. Trim-to-trim at shoulder level, the Mooney is 41 1/2 inches wide to the Bonanzas 42 1/2 inches. While thats only an inch difference, its an important inch and translates to two big-shouldered guys just brushing elbows rather than being locked in intimate embrace.

More critical for comfort, however, is seat height and angle. To allow decent headroom-the Mooney actually has a little more-the Mooney seats angle backward and are shorter in height, 10 inches above the floor versus the Bonanzas 16 inches. This yields a reclining, legs-out seating position thats excellent for legroom but hard on occupants with tender backs.

By contrast, the Bonanza seats are more upright-like a conventional chair-but have less adjustability fore and aft. The Mooney wins hands down on legroom, but the Bonanza seats are simply more comfortable. An armrest between the two seats helps in that regard. Backseat occupants fare better in the Bonanza, too. The cabin is essentially the same width as the Mooney but with the front seats adjusted in the mid range, the pax have fully 9 inches of knee room. The Mooney has less than half that. Ingress and egress for passengers is equally difficult in both, despite the Bonanzas much larger door.

But after a long flight, only the very flexible will find it easy to get in and out of a Mooney. Weve seen more than one right seater crawl inelegantly onto the wing walk before standing erect and wobbling to the ramp. Bonanza pax-at least from the front seat-can step right onto the wing.

Comforts, Cockpit Ergonomics
In our view, both models are relatively comfortable from the heating, ventilation and lighting point of view. The Mooney has Wemac eyeball vents on both the overhead and the front cockpit walls while the Bonanzas have Wemacs on the overhead and grates on the front cockpit walls. Both have excellent heaters that will keep even the rear seats-but not the baggage compartment-toasty.

The Mooney has a concealed overhead and baggage compartment light that works independent of the master switch. It provides low-level general lighting but isn’t sufficient for serious reading. The Bonanza, on the other hand, has both a dome light-a bit dim, really-and switchable, airline-style reading lights. (Yup, the rear seat passenger really can read at night without disturbing the pilot.)

Speaking of pilots, the two models don’t share much in common with regard to cockpit layout and design. With either a throwover wheel or dual yokes mounted on a massive pipe-like structure projecting from the center of the panel, Beechcraft designers sort of gave up when it came to positioning controls and instruments in anything approaching the ergonomic ideal.

The throttle, mixture and prop controls, not to mention flap and gear handles, are partially or entirely hidden by the yoke apparatus and the fuel boost pump also hides down there somewhere. Worse yet, the gear and flap handles are reversed, with the gear on the far right (including the down and lock lights) and the flap handle on the left, forcing the pilot to reach and feel.

Bonanza acolytes say this is no big deal and you get used to it but in our view, its simply poor design. In later models, Beech corrected this, with dual yokes each with their own shaft and the gear handle high on the panel in plain view. On the positive side, engine instruments are in plain view but the radio stack is usually concentrated on the far left of the Bonanzas panel.

By comparison, the Mooney is a model of ergonomic efficiency, with power controls plainly visible in the center of the panel, power gauges off to the right side and gear and flap handles positioned where you expect them. The Mooney panels chief weakness is the engine gauge cluster, which, for a tall pilot, tends to hide under the glareshield.

Panel lighting in the Bonanza is somewhat better, in our view, with a combination of post lights and internal instrument lighting. Nice touches: Post lights on the OAT gauge and fuel switch, reducing the fumbling for a flashlight.

Engines, Systems
The J-model Mooneys perk along quite handsomely on a 200 HP Lycoming IO-360, sipping perhaps 10 gallons per hour. You can say lots of good things about this engine-it tends to make TBO, uses predictable amounts of oil and is easy to maintain with relatively cheap parts.

Now the bad things: Its occasionally susceptible to Lycoming cam disease, sticking valve morning sickness and has those cursed Bendix dual magnetos. Smooth ones run with acceptable vibration levels, rough ones are horrid.

The 285 HP IO-520BB used in the Beechcraft, by contrast, is famed as a smooth operator, giving the pilot the distinct impression that it isn’t even attached to the airframe. Its relatively easy to start whether hot or cold and is generally considered one of the better engines TCM makes. On the other hand, we view it as more of an unknown with regard to TBO, which is stated as 1700 hours.

Owners weve talked to are split about engine longevity. Some change the oil at regular intervals, fly lots of hours and have still had the cylinders crump at 500 hours. Others sail on to TBO or beyond, wondering what the fuss is about. Compared to the Lycoming, parts for this engine-especially alternators-are more expensive.

Since it has six rather than the Lycomings four cylinders, overhaul costs are higher, especially if you wisely factor in a mid-run top and consider yourself lucky if you don’t need it.

In the Continental engines favor, its easier to maintain in the Bonanza than the Lycoming is in the Mooney, where hoses and wires are stuffed cheek-by-jowl in a cramped engine compartment. Merely changing the oil in the Mooney is an exercise in spill control but is less frustrating in the Bo.

Neither airplane has what we would call quirky systems, other than the aforementioned cockpit design in the Bonanza. Controls are conventional, with tubes in the Mooney and cables in the Bonanza. Rather than a conventional trim tab, the Mooneys entire empennage moves, altering the horizontal fins angle of attack to maintain trim.

This is done through a jackscrew arrangement which has a good service history. Even the V-tail Bos are nothing too odd, although the ruddervators have to be balanced and the cables correctly tensioned. This important item simply must not be overlooked. (See sidebar.)

The fuel systems are the same: A left and right tank with a switch to select either. All of the Mooneys 64 gallon capacity is usable, while the Bonanza tankers 80 gallons, 74 usable. Due to fuel unporting on takeoff, the Bonanzas of this vintage are placarded against taking off with less than 13 gallons per side. Nonetheless, only an idiot would mismanage the fuel in either airplane. (Alas, some idiots have; in fact, many have.)Both the landing gear systems consist of electric motors driving geared transmissions, with a manual back-up-a T-handle and cable in the Mooney and a crank in the Bonanza. Take your pick on ease of use; we like the Mooney design better.

The Mooneys back-up is easier to use and, in general, the gear is less troublesome and cheaper to fix when it does break. The Bos legs are made of purpose-made castings, while the Mooney gear is a bridgework made of off-the-shelf tubing.

Maintenance Weak Spots
If there’s any Achilles heel to owning and maintaining a Beechcraft, its the breathtaking price of parts from the factory. (See sidebar.)

In general, the 33/35 Bonanzas don’t seem to have any chronic weak spots, other than corrosion or damage to control cables and rods, worn, damaged or corroded landing gear components-there are more of these in the Bonanza than the Mooney-and corrosion in the expensive magnesium tail feathers.

These certainly arent inevitable and can be avoided with hangaring and good preventative maintenance. ADs vary with year, of course, but the 33 series requires inspections of front wing spar carry-throughs for cracking and inspection of rudder and elevators for cracking. Expensive fixes if found, but not all that common.

As mentioned, engines overhauled with factory cylinders-or factory reman engines-have had widespread problems with early onset of low compression. TCMs Top Care program was developed, in part, to address this. But many owners are addressing it forthrightly with cylinders bought from other sources.

Next to Beechcraft prices, Mooney parts can be had for a song, although the factory has recently raised parts prices considerably so the Delta isn’t as great as it once was. Further, some shops report parts availability problems from Mooney. (Raytheon, on the other hand, has every part you’ll ever need and at that the prices they charge, were not surprised.)

Mooney weak spots? Fuel tanks, for a start. Its not a question of if you’ll reseal them, but when. Die-hard Mooniacs joke that they don’t worry about the tanks until the rear seat carpeting is soggy with gas. But this is an expensive repair and many shops just cant do it right. Sealing the tanks on the cheap only promises more grief later.

Mooney has had its problems with corrosion, too, chiefly from leaky windows that allow water to soak the cabin insulation, corroding the internal steel tube cage. If bad enough, this can be an extremely expensive repair. Also, in airplanes kept near salty coastal areas, watch for corrosion in the main wing spar.

Other annoying maintenance items: Landing lights that burn out frequently, recurring ADs on the Bendix dual mag and a tight engine compartment that makes working on these airplanes frustrating at times.

Performance, Load Carrying
And now for the bottom line: How fast? How far? How much stuff?

Mooney pilots tend to think of the J-model as a 160-knot airplane while Bo drivers swear they cruise at 170 knots. Both are wrong, at least for stock airplanes.

At 65 percent power in the low to mid-altitudes, the 201 cruises reliably between 150 and 155 knots on about 10.5 gallons, leaned to best power. Claims of routine cruise speeds on stock airframes between 160 and 165 knots strike us as typical brand loyalist exaggeration or erroneous airspeed indicators. A simple data run with a GPS can set that straight.

Stock Bonanzas with the IO-520 cruise in the 160 to 165 knot range on 13 to 14 GPH, again leaned to best power. On a knots-per-gallon basis, the Mooney enjoys a considerable edge in efficiency if operated according to the book. As weve reported, install a set of GAMIjectors and lean aggressively and the IO-520 becomes significantly more efficient, extending the Bonanzas range at very little cost in speed.

GAMIjectors are also available for the Lycoming IO-360, of course, but the efficiency gains are less dramatic. Nonetheless, the Mooney is still generally capable of squeezing more miles out of a gallon of gas than the Bonanza, absent any mods on either airframe.

Both airplanes are blessed with good range. The Mooneys 64-gallon capacity easily provides five hours of endurance, with IFR reserves for a still-air range of 750 miles or more. The Bonanza-with 80-gallon tanks, not the smaller 50 gallons-can fly just shy of the same five-hour trip, with reserves, but thanks to its higher cruise speed, tanks-full range is essentially the same. Given the cabin comfort issue, we would prefer the Bonanza for a four or five-hour trip over the Mooney.

Neither airplane is championed as a great load hauler, least of all the Mooney. But, in reality, the load carrying ability of the two airplanes is not all that different. Typical useful loads are in the 900 to 1000-pound range for the Mooney.

Using the middle of that range, with full tanks, you can carry three 170 pounders and 50 pounds of bags. Fill the seats and carry the same 50 pounds of bags and youve got room for 35 gallons of gas or two-and-half hours of flying, with reserves.

Owners praise the J-models as excellent two-person airplanes with unlimited baggage, an accurate assessment in our view. To its credit, the Mooneys CG envelope is generously wide, making it all but impossible to load out of CG.

The same cant be said of the Bonanza, which is famous for its aft-tending CG and is something owners tell us they have to watch carefully. (Some even install a lead counterweight in the nose to offset the aft CG.)

Early 1980s F33s typically have useful loads of about 1050 to 1100 pounds. Again, using the middle number, with tanks full, the Bonanza will accommodate three people but a little more baggage than the Mooney, about 80 pounds.

Fill all the seats in the Bonanza, throw in 50 pounds of luggage, and there’s payload left for 57 gallons of fuel or 3.5 hours of endurance, with reserves. If the backseaters are heavyweights, the CG will be pushed toward or even past the aft limit. More than one Bonanza owner has been stung by a lax attitude toward the B in weight and balance.

Although the Bonanza enjoys a slight edge in total load carrying ability, this is somewhat neutralized by its sensitive CG. (The V-tails require a bit more attention to loading than the straight-tail 33s.) F33s often have a fifth seat in the baggage compartment but don’t count on it being too useful, due to the aft CG problem.

Handling, Landing
Mooney owners like to claim their airplanes handle like sports cars, a boast thats true if youre thinking about a 1959 MG sans power steering. In truth, Mooneys are somewhat heavy in roll, neutral in pitch and with a small, light rudder.

Although we don’t find them unpleasant to handle, theyre also not exceptional in any regard. The sports car analogy may simply stem from the airframes small size.

Bonanzas, on the other hand, are probably the sweetest handling singles yet built, with the possible exception of the Cirrus SR20. A Bos control forces are uniformly light but, more important, nicely balanced between roll and pitch, which yields a preciseness and pleasantness the Mooney lacks. Any pilot new to a Bonanza is likely to remark on the models unique, put-it-where-you-want-it handling.

But that doesnt mean its perfect. In turbulence, the Bo wags its tail like a Labrador awaiting dinner and for backseat passengers with tender stomachs, this can be nausea-inducing misery. Some Bonanza drivers claim the F33 wags less than the V-tail but weve never seen any evidence of this.

A little foot pressure on the rudder pedals is supposed to help; a yaw damper definitely does and ought to be considered a plus if the rear seats are used much. The Mooney has some tail waggle, too, but its not nearly as noticeable.

Both airplanes are easy to land, if flown on speed. And both will float if the approach is too fast. Stuff the Mooney onto the runway before its done flying and you can expect nasty porpoising. The Bonanza is more forgiving and has struts to soak up the landing bump, rather than the Mooneys unyielding rubber donuts.

Both airplanes will land and take off in surprisingly short distances, especially at light weights. But because of its limited prop clearance and close-to-the-ground gear doors, the Mooney is less suited to rough or grass fields than is the Bonanza, although neither excels in this area.

First, lets ignore money. Second, were not going to wimp out and equivocate with some mealy-mouthed journalistic babble about mission suitability. The fact is, both of these airplanes do essentially the same mission: Fly three people with baggage over medium distances.

The Bonanza goes faster, is more comfortable, handles better, carries a little more and has nicer attention to detail than the Mooney. To us, if money isn’t a consideration, the Bonanza wins easily. (That doesnt apply to early model Bonanzas, however.)

And although it may come as a surprise, our impression is that the demographics of used aircraft buying are changing such that there’s a lot of wealth out there that didnt exist even 10 years ago. For many buyers considering a purchase of less than $250,000, the money truly doesnt matter. These purchasers should consider the Bonanza the one to beat when shopping for a used single.

But for those skinflints who figure restaurant tips to three places and round downward, the Mooney leaves the Bonanza in the dust in only one regard: Overall cost of ownership. If owning an airplane is a financial reach and not the most important thing in your life and you want a high performance airplane thats unlikely to consume vast sums on a yearly basis, the Mooney wins. The Bo-at least an early 80s model-isn’t a realistic option. (In our view, the P and N-model Bonanzas are the better value in this model.)

On the typical trip, the miserly Mooney will get you there 15 minutes later, you wont be able to carry as much luggage and you wont be quite as comfortable. But you’ll spend less on gas, maintenance and insurance over the course of a year and your monthly nut may resemble your car payment, not your mortgage.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Bonanza and Mooney Compared.
Click here to view the Parts and Prices Comparison.
Click here to view “Accidents Compared.”

All things considered, we think thats a nice option to have.

-by Paul Bertorelli