People who buy airplanes can be fickle but those who buy new airplanes are capable of turning on a dime and giving you nine cents change. We know this because weve had experience with the buyer who lists all the attributes of a particular model on a yellow legal pad, decides to buy and then promptly reverses himself after a good nights sleep.
This drives aircraft sales people nuts, of course, but they know the game. Aircraft buying is not rational; emotions often drive the deal. It may help if the models are closely matched in capability and price, since the vacillating owner can then fall back on bloodless statistics when the thrill of the hunt turns to the anguish of indecision.
In the world of four-place high-performance singles-HPSE in salespeak-the would-be buyer will need all the dispassionate data he can get, given the choices in this market. If theres such a thing as a hot segment in the current GA climate, four-place HPSE is it. In days of yore, you could sort the choices by fixed-gear versus retractable but Cirrus and Lancair have blurred that line with the SR20/22 and the Columbia 300.
For our purposes, were ignoring the FAAs definition of high performance and setting our own benchmark. For this review, the threshold is 150 knots so, for new aircraft, that points us at Mooneys Eagle/Ovation, the Cirrus SR20/22 and Lancairs 300 Columbia.
For simplicitys sake, well examine the higher performers in this segment, the Ovation, the SR22 and the Columbia. In a great leap of faith well in character with the what-me-worry world of GA, well pretend that Mooney really will emerge from bankruptcy and make new airplanes again. (They always have.)
Normally, when comparing products, we try to define what makes the ideal, then examine our victims…err choices to see how they measure up. Thats difficult to do in this product category for different buyers will seek different criteria. Some will want speed above all else, others comfort while others will want payload. That said, our definition of the ideal HPSE is one that delivers the best combination of all of these qualities without compromising any one in an exclusive way.
We know what isnt important: Whether the gear retracts or not is a testosterone issue, not a performance issue. Cirrus and Lancair have proven that a fixed-gear single can perform as well as a retrac and even though not having a gear switch isnt quite so butch, it saves you money and eliminates the prospect of a wheels-up slide down the concrete. As Martha Stewart would say, its a good thing.
We also think the owner of a four-place high-performance airplane ought to be able to fill the seats without draining the tanks to fumes. Were willing to put up with a little less range, sure, but we tire of the argument that you simply cant expect to fill both seats and tanks. Call us unrealistic, but we think its a noble goal to at least try.
For new airplanes upon which you can expect to spend at least a quarter million bucks-and probably a lot more-we think the paint ought to stick to the airframe, the fit and finish ought to be first rate, the seats comfortable and adjustable and the interior appointments durable and good looking. Gone are the days when we were willing to put up with cheesy Royalite and-gasp!-crushed velour upholstery of a grade that wouldnt do justice to an Elvis portrait.
For this comparison, were examining three aircraft that are, arguably, among the best ever marketed in GA. The Ovations been around the longest, having been introduced by Mooney in 1994 as the M20R model, based on the long fuselage TLS/Bravo model, the M20M. In 2000, Mooney introduced the Ovation 2, which increased speed by 5 to 6 knots by dint of a tweaked two-blade propeller. (The original Ovation had a three-blade McCauley.)
For power, Mooney chose Continentals IO-550G, de-rated to 280 HP by limiting RPM to 2500. This engine-among the best ever made by Continental, in our view-has a tuned induction system and its dramatically smoother and quieter than the TSIO-540 used in the TLS/Bravo. Further, it can be powered back to burn a miserly 10 to 12 gallons per hour while still delivering decent cruise speed.
The original Ovation was, by far, Mooneys runaway best seller during the 1990s, outselling the Bravo by two to one. After Mooney dropped the J-model, it turned the Ovation into an entry-level offering in 1999 with the Eagle. It has the same engine as the Ovation but its de-tuned to 244 HP and has a two-blade McCauley and a 168-pound lower gross weight. If you want it, the Ovation can be had with known-ice protection via the TKS system. As of 2001, the Ovation 2 was selling for about $463,000 while the Eagle cost $346,000.
Obviously, prices like those are what got companies such as Cirrus and Lancair started. Both sell airplanes with comparable performance costing considerably less.
Cirrus, of course, shook up the market with its SR20, a well-received four-place cruiser soon followed by the SR22, an upgrade aircraft clearly aimed at Ovation-class buyers.
Like the Ovation, the Cirrus sports an IO-550 but in the SR22, its not de-rated and pumps out the full 310 HP through a three-blade prop. Unique to the Cirrus line is a two-lever control system, with the propeller RPM handled by a mechanical system that sets RPM according to throttle position. Also unique to the Cirrus is the CAPS ballistic parachute, the same system found on the SR20 and a marketing touchstone for this airplane.
Cirrus made quite a splash with the large, centerpiece multi-function display but the original offering from ARNAV was a disappointment. Cirrus has since made a deal with Avidyne to provide an improved color MFD, which we think was inevitable. With its sexy side-stick controller, the Cirrus is one of the nicest handling airplanes weve flown, certainly rivaling the Bonanza for pleasurable ease of control.
As everyone in the industry predicted, Cirrus has been inching up its prices. As of March 2002, the base price of an SR22 was $289,400 and typical equipped invoices are in the $300,000 range. Considering Cirrus sales, thats a hell of a deal, some $160,000 less than an Ovation for similar performance. Also in the same performance range but a tad faster is Lancairs Columbia 300, similar in concept to the Cirrus, but without the ballistic parachute. Side-by-side, the Cirrus and Lancair look similar but the Lancair, with its sharp taper to the tail, is sleeker to our eye.
Its also faster than the Ovation by a knot or two and, depending on whos buying the gas, 5 to 8 knots faster than the SR22 at power settings we consider practical for most owners. Like the Cirrus, the Lancair emerged from an experimental aircraft culture so its not especially burdened by the need for maintaining any status quo.
That means it has sidestick controllers and a smallish cross section that yields the speed owners say they desire.
Well-equipped Lancairs are going out the door for about $300,000 to $325,000, fitted with UPSAT/Apollo gear and an S-TEC autopilot. If you buy an airplane purely to get from A to B in a hurry and you dont care about much else, the Lancair Columbia finishes first in the raw speed category, although the Ovation 2 is right with it. Equipped with the same engine as the other two entrants, our flight trials show that the Columbia easily cruises at 182 knots at 10,000 feet, making about 65 percent power and burning about 16 GPH. Flat out, itll do 190 knots.
It can be aggressively leaned to burn substantially less gas than that, which has the dual advantage of running the engine cooler and extending the airplanes already impressive range.
Like the Ovation, the Lancair will get high if it needs to and has sufficient reserve power not to be waddling along in the teens. That means it doesnt really need turbocharging to get above a great deal of the weather most owners who fly this class of airplane will encounter. It doesnt have a built-in oxygen option, however, but may have in the future.
But the Ovation does, and that makes it the ideal low-high cruiser. Even though de-rated, the Ovations IO-550 will climb into the mid-teens and still true a respectable 170 knots. In a brisk tailwind, it can be drawn back to 10 GPH or less, making crossing half the continent a doable challenge. For best practical speed, the Ovations ideal altitude is in the 10,000 to 12,000-foot range, where will still maintain 65 percent power and 175 knots.
The SR22 hangs behind the Lancair and Ovation in real-world speed but only a little. Pushed hard, it will do the book-claimed 180 knots but owners tell us 165 knots is more realistic. According to owner reports, the SR22 is not quite as happy in the teens as is the Ovation and if you got there, youll have to bring your own oxygen; on board O2 isnt an option.
If youre going to go high, of course, it matters how long it takes to get there. In that regard, the SR22 and Lancair are the clear winners. Both bolt down the runway in a rush and climb well, even when moderately loaded.
The Ovation, on the other hand, is a bit of a runway hog. It takes time to gather itself up and accelerate to a decent climb rate. If runway lengths are a consideration-in other words, if you do a lot of short-field flying-the SR22 is a better pick over the Ovation. We wouldnt operate an Ovation out of 2500 feet but the SR22 and Columbia will do that in a breeze. The two-blade Ovation 2 is an improvement over the three-blade Ovation, however.
As we noted, it may be unrealistic to expect both payload and range out of single. But the Cessna 210 does it so were not willing to give up the dream. In any case, singles tend to be so limited in payload that the one with the most loading flexibility will be the winner. That means it should have big fuel tanks and moderate fuel burn so that fuel left on the ramp wont sap the range.
All three of these airplanes fare relatively well in this category, although the two composite designs clearly have struggled with weight control. Take the Lancair, for example. Its advertised empty weight is 2250 pounds for a useful load of 1150 pounds. Sounds good. But delivered examples may be heavier. A production Lancair we flew had a useful load of 1050 pounds, a weight gain worth 16 gallons of gas.
The SR22 we tested had a useful load of 1152 pounds and the Ovation was closer to the Lancair, at about 1050 pounds. And heres what all that means:With the seats full and 50 pounds of baggage, both the Lancair and Ovation have room for 53 gallons of fuel. In the Lancair, that translates to about 550 miles of still-air range, with a 45-minute reserve. In the Mooney, full-seats range is a sliver more at 590 miles.
The SR22, on the other hand, has room for the four people, the bags and 70 gallons of gas for a still-air range about 700 miles. So although its not the fastest of the three, the SR22 wins the payload flexibility category. That 150 miles of additional range might make the difference between a fuel stop and a non-stop.
Inverting the solution here, when the tanks are full and with two or three people, whos got the longest legs? The Lancair, although a puff of wind could make it even up with the Ovation. The Lancair tankers 98 gallons usable fuel which translates to more than six hours of endurance, with reserves. Call that about 1200 miles of still-air range.
The Ovation has 89 gallons for an endurance of six hours and a still-air range of about 1150 miles. In this crowd, the SR22 lags on max range. It has 81 gallons usable for an endurance of about 4.6 hours and a still-air range of 800 miles, with reserves.
Conclusion: If range and speed rate big in your world, the Lancair is the pick of the litter, with the Ovation second and the Cirrus last.
When NASA launched and began throwing money at the Small Aircraft Transportation System initiative, one of the goals was new aircraft with more reliable, safer systems and with improved crashworthiness.
How do these airplanes measure up to that goal? In our view, the Cirrus SR22 wins this category in a walk, even if only on paper, since it has no meaningful accident record to examine. Cirruss boldest feature is, of course, the CAPS parachute, designed to lower the entire aircraft to the ground so that the occupants can at least survive if not emerge uninjured.
As we were preparing this article, the first CAPS deployment occurred when two pilots got into an unusual attitude in an SR20 over Lexington, Kentucky. The results werent encouraging as the CAPS apparently failed to deploy until after the airplane impacted the ground. Both pilots emerged shaken but unhurt.
Both the SR20 and SR22 have highly crashworthy seats and restraints, a stall-resistant wing, an interior free of injury-inducing structures, a fuel system isolated from the cabin and even a small crash hammer for occupants to batter their way out of the airplane, if necessary. For basic systems in the SR22, Cirrus did something else we applaud: it got rid of the vacuum pump. The airplane is all-electric with two alternators and two batteries, each isolated from each other so that one can serve as an essential bus, powering the avionics in the event of a single alternator failure.
As for the avionics, Cirrus has good options in the Garmin centerstack-a pair of Garmins-a 430/420 or pair of 430s in the between-pilots console and an Avidyne FlightMax EX5000C front and center in the panel.
In our view, this is a vast improvement over the ARNAV MFD Cirrus selected as its launch MFD. As options, buyers can select a Sandel 3308 EHSI and either an S-TEC System 30 or System 55 autopilot, both good choices.
Two other system items worth noting are the control circuitry-conventional tubes and cables with a side controller-and the two-lever power system. Although we like the wide-open cockpit feel provided by the side controller, we can take it or leave it as means of controlling the airplane. Its better than a yoke but we would prefer a center stick, frankly, while admitting that the side controller is safer. We think side controllers are somewhat tiring to use when hand flying.
The two-lever engine control system Cirrus employs is a nice try but falls short, in our view. It controls engine RPM through a cam arrangement tied to throttle position. We think this deprives the pilot of tweaking additional performance and smoothness by hunting for the RPM sweet spot most engine/airframe combinations have. Further, its not that hard to learn to manage RPM until smart FADECs come along to do it for us.
In the Columbia 300, Lancair has stayed with the conventional three-lever system and we wonder if that accounts for some of its additional speed. Like the Cirrus, it has a side controller so the same caveats apply.
On the crashworthiness front, Lancair also scores well with the 300, despite lacking the CAPS parachute. It has crushable forward structure and energy-absorbing seats and the same interior free of sharpies as does the Cirrus. But both it and the Cirrus have something we dont like: doors that open forward and upward. Admittedly, the Cirrus doors-one on each side-are almost conventional, with forward hinges. But the Lancair has gullwing doors, so if the aircraft comes to rest inverted, exit may be difficult. True, the doors have an emergency lever to pop the hinges and even a lever on the underside with instructions to a rescuer on how to open them.
Theres also a crash hammer for chopping your way out if all else fails. On balance, if we had the choice, we would rather not have the gullwing doors in an airplane; theyre pretty but potentially hazardous, considering the consequences of one coming open in flight. Further, they can be a pain to open and close from the cockpit. Its a long reach to coax the door down.
Otherwise, the Lancair has conventional systems all around but with all-electric trim and no manual back-up. Current models have dual vacuum pumps but by this summer, new models will be all electric, as per the Cirrus, a change we applaud.
In this regard, the Ovations systems are similar but improved over what the spam can industry has traditionally offered. Although it has vacuum for its instruments, it has a stand-by system plus two batteries but only one alternator. Overall, we think the Cirrus/Lancair approach edges out the Mooney in overall reliability.
The Ovation retains the three-lever system but since the engine isnt equipped with an altitude-compensating fuel pump, it has a dedicated gauge for manual leaning during the climb. The control circuitry is standard Mooney: a robust and reliable rod-and-tube system.
Although Mooney airframes are heroically strong, the Ovation lacks the crashworthiness sophistication of the Cirrus and Lancair. No crushable structure, no parachute, no stall/spin-resistant wing design but improved crashworthy seats.
For avionics, Mooney offers Garmin products-the 530 as centerpiece and a 430 as second fiddle-and a Bendix/King KFC225 autopilot.
In the all-weather category, the Ovation is the clear winner. One thing both Cirrus and Lancair havent dealt with is de-icing capability which, in our view, limits the utility of their airplanes as all-weather transportation.
Now we werent born yesterday so we know serious IFR pilots arent stopped cold by ice in the forecast-whether equipped with de-icing or not. They go and they deal with it. But there are days when thats simply not an option, due to the severity of icing. Further, we interviewed a group of pilots who have operated both the Ovation and the Cirrus extensively, including in icing. They note that Ovation shrugs off light icing but the Cirrus slows down considerably, even with a light coat of rime. Further, one reported that the Cirrus elevator stuck momentarily in icing, but he was able to free it. Weve heard no feedback on the Lancairs performance in icing. And for any owner who absolutely, positively has to go in any weather, the Ovation can be equipped with TKS known-icing, a $48, 250 option that will handle any icing you can throw at it. For that reason, we think the Ovation is by far the best all-weather flyer.
Comparing any of these airplanes against the best of anything made during the 1980s is an exercise in stark contrast. The interiors are cleaner and quieter, the seats more comfortable, the ventilation and creature comforts better.
For pure cabin fit and finish and comfort, we think the Mooney enjoys the edge. Its composite/fabric cabin liners are durable, look terrific and contribute to the quietest cabin of the lot, in our view. Further, with the three-blade prop on the original Ovation, vibration is hardly noticeable. Owners tell us that the Ovation 2s two-blade is not objectionably vibey.
The Mooneys seats are adjustable across a range of parameters and thus potentially more comfortable than either the Cirrus or the Lancair and, in general, we think the detailing is nicer in the Mooney.
Ventilation is adequate in all of these airplanes but theyre all low-wing aircraft so they tend to warm up in hot weather. The cracked door method works well in the Mooney and Cirrus, less well in the Lancair, although it can be done. Of the three, only the Mooney has air conditioning as an option.
For tall pilots, the Mooney also enjoys the edge for over all room, with the Cirrus next and the Lancair less so, due to tight headroom of its overhead vent panel. But Mooney owners pay for it in relatively poor visibility due to the high glareshield. Vis is adequate forward but not nearly as good as the Lancair or Cirrus, which we consider about equal. The Mooney has both the largest baggage area and the most space for backseat occupants. All three have smallish baggage doors but the Cirrus is, in our view, easiest to load because the baggage door opens to the floor of the compartment and is lower than the Lancairs.
All three aircraft have excellent cabin lighting, with either backlighted instruments or some combination of eyebrow and backlighting. Not a post light in sight. With its bright recognition lights and dual taxi/landing light design, the Mooney enjoys the advantage in exterior lighting.
Aircraft makers hate it when we bring this up but our view is this: if youre about to hand over a check for the better part of a half-million bucks, you have a right to ask if the company will be around next week, next month or next year.
We know one thing: Mooney is in bankruptcy. As press time, a successful sale of Mooneys assets to Advanced Aerodynamics and Structures, Inc. (AASI) had been approved by the bankruptcy court. Mooney reports that it has 20 airplanes on the wheels in Kerrville and ready for completion. In the bankruptcy period-which began last summer-owners complained about lack of warranty response. If that sounds like a black mark, it is.
Lancair has had well publicized difficulties with obtaining necessary financing but, after a struggle, has apparently done so for the time being. Nonetheless, its still struggling with ramping up production to meet demand, an absolute necessity if the company is to reach enduring profitability, independent of how good the product is.
Cirrus, too, has had capital problems. But a year ago it secured funding from a middle eastern source, has reorganized after laying off some of its workforce and reports a production rate of one a day, plus a growing backlog of orders.
Bluntly, we would hardly call any of these companies a lead-pipe cinch to succeed into the next decade. Of the three, we have the most confidence in Cirrus and give it the highest marks for being responsive to both customer gripes and our queries.
Lancair and Mooney fall in behind, in that order. Even before bankruptcy, we heard complaints about Mooney sales and warranty support. The new management needs to fix that. Lancair is still work in progress but earns good marks thus far.
We have to admit to two surprises in doing this analysis. One is how closely all three airplanes compared; we think theyre all good choices. Surprise two is how well the Ovation-a design which traces its roots back to Al and Art Mooneys doodlings in Wichita and Kerrville-compares with the new-age clean-sheet designs from Cirrus and Lancair.
Compared dispassionately, the Ovation holds its own and even surpasses the other two in some regards. But it loses out in the all-important price category. With a minimum price premium of $160,000 and as much as $200,000, variable with options, the Ovation is as good as but not better than the Lancair or Cirrus.
This coupled with the fact the company is still emerging from bankruptcy rules against picking the Ovation as the leader in this class. Advanced Aerodynamics and Structures, Inc. thinks it can squeeze some dollars out of the Ovations price but talk is cheap. Theyll have to swallow Mooney first, then resume production.
That leaves a two-way shootout between the SR22 and Columbia 300. Honestly, theres no hands- down winner here; personal preferences could swing it either way. But referring to our scorecard, we think the Cirrus edges out the Lancair by a nose.
Both are excellent airplanes. But Cirrus has more airplanes in the market, a higher production rate, more refined and experienced support, a bit better payload and, last, the Lexington accident notwithstanding, the parachute. Taken together, we think those attributes hoist the Cirrus SR22 to the top of a heap of very capable airplanes.
-by Paul Bertorelli