Six-Place Shootout

Among heavy singles, Pipers PA-32 line wins the payload race but the 36-series Bonanzas are a classier ride.

Buying an airplane-even thinking about buying one-can be equal parts fantasy and reality. Fantasy: You lust for a pressurized twin. Reality: Your station in life dictates a fixed-gear single. Fantasy: You imagine a hair-on-fire fast cruiser with fly-by-wire handling. Reality: The wife and kids expect a ride to the beach so you need six seats.

And therein is the reason airplanes like Beechcrafts 36 series and the Piper Cherokee Six/Lance/Saratoga line exist. The GA marketeers long ago figured out that even the most robust singles don’t quite work as family airplanes, either because of payload limitations or sheer lack of volume.

The six-seat requirement raises a genuine conundrum for most buyers. Looking at the payload and range curves, some buyers flirt with a light or medium twin, most of which will easily carry the load, at least over short distance. Prices for twins took a dive during the early 1990 and although some models recovered, most did not.

With recent spikes in fuel costs, prices of twins are softer yet. Although cheap to buy, twins are expensive to maintain and operate and anyone on a budget will inevitably focus again on singles.

The Beechcraft 36 series and Pipers Cherokee Six/Lance/Saratoga models often rise to the fore in such buying deliberations. Of all the market choices that most would consider practical in the single-engine realm, only the Beechcraft 36 and big Pipers have six easily accessible seats. And while both are somewhat payload limited-more the Beech than the Piper-both can carry six people in some fashion, even if some are kids.

Model Variation
Beechcraft launched the model 36 in 1968, in direct response to Cessnas sales success with the 210. It had dabbled in the six-seat field by stretching the S-35 V-tail model and adding a couple of family seats but the 36 was a true clean-sheet design.

Compared to the Piper approach-which ultimately featured different engines, both fixed and retractable gear, plus turbocharging, the evolution of the Beech line is relatively easy to follow.

The first 36 Bo-called merely the 36-had a 285 HP Continental IO-520B and a pair of clamshell doors to access the rear cabin. All of the seats faced forward; no club seating in those days. Two years later, in 1970, the A36 appeared, aimed more at the owner-flown luxury market than the utility field Beech had in mind with the original 36. The fuel capacity was increased to 74 gallons and club seating was offered.

In 1984, Beech re-engined the 36 with an IO-550, raising the power to 300 HP. At the same time, Beech got rid of the old throwover control wheel in place of conventional center-post yokes and it improved the layout of the cockpit instruments and controls.

Having enjoyed some sales success with the A36 model, Beech heeded the call for more speed and added turbocharging in 1979, creating the A36TC of which not quite 300 were built. The A36TC had a Continental TSIO-520-UB and delivered decent performance into the high teens.

But with only 74 gallons fuel capacity, it didnt have much range so Beech responded by increasing the tankage to 102 gallons in 1982 and the B36TC was born, an airplane still in production today. Beech also continues to build the non-turbocharged A36 model, although it phased out its four-place singles in 1994.

The market for a high-dollar non-pressurized six-place singles is somewhat limited, it would appear. Beech sells about 100 of these aircraft a year, with a strong tilt toward the non-turbocharged A36.

Pipers Six Seaters
Pipers genealogy, in contrast, followed a more torturous path, with more offshoots than Beech pursued. Piper too noted the sales success of Cessnas 210, which first appeared in 1960, and it beat Beech to the market with a six-placer in 1965. The so-called Cherokee Six (PA-28-260) was, in many ways, a stretched version of the popular PA-28 series, of which Piper had sold thousands. Piper stuck with Lycoming for the Six, using the carbureted O-540 with 260 HP.

The Six shares the same basic design with the smaller Cherokees in that it has a stabilator, oleo-strut fixed gear, manual flaps and nearly identical instrument and cabin layout, so step-up from an Archer or a Warrior is easy.

But the cabin itself is enormous, being both wider and longer than the smaller singles. There are two doors, the front cabin door on the right side of the aircraft and an aft door for the rear cabin on the left of the aircraft. Piper also added a small top-opening hatch door aft of the rear cabin door, which provides easy access to the baggage compartment behind the rear seats. (Not all models have this.)

Realizing that the Six was a bit anemic with seats full, Piper upped the horsepower to 300 HP in 1966, installing the injected IO-540 and yielding the Cherokee Six 300. Both of these models were available, side-by-side, until 1978, when the 260 HP variant was discontinued. The 300 HP version, which is considered more desirable, gains a few knots of cruise speed and a better climb rate but because of its higher empty weight, the payload may actually be a bit less than the 260 HP version.

Since the law of complexity seems to demand that any fixed-gear airplane should eventually get retractable gear, Piper added that design change in 1976, creating the Lance (PA-32-R300) with Lycomings IO-540 K1G5D for the normally aspirated version and the TIO-540-S1AD for the later turbocharged models, which appeared in 1978 as the PA-32RT-300T. (Confused yet?)

When first rolled out, the Lance had a conventional stabilator tail, as per every other Cherokee ever made. Then, in 1978, Piper entered its T-tail phase, adding a T-tail to the Lance, the Arrow and the Tomahawk. At this point, the Lance became the Lance II.

The T-tails were anything but a smash hit, since they added pitch quirkiness to an otherwise honest handling airplane and were a pain in the butt to preflight, requiring a ladder to clear the frost and snow off that high T-tail. Owners insist the T-tails got a bad rap and fly just as we’ll as the conventional tails do but even the POHs-which tend to stretch credulity to the limit-admit lesser takeoff performance for the T-tails and Piper later discontinued them.

This range of models must have confused even Piper so in 1980, the Lances Hershey Bar wing was replaced with the new tapered wing and the company restored the conventional-and much respected-stabilator tail surface and renamed the airplane the Saratoga SP. The fixed-gear version of what had originally been the Cherokee Six also got the new wing and was called simply the Saratoga.

Like Beech, Piper knew its customers wanted speed so it offered turbocharging in both the fixed-gear and retractable variants, offering yet more choice for buyers at the expense of a confusing model line-up. The turbo versions were available in the Toga from 1980 forward.

The turbocharged SP went out of production in 1987 while the normally aspirated model hung in until 1992 and was revived briefly in 1994/1995. Coming full circle, today, New Piper has a simpler product line: It offers the Saratoga II TC with turbocharging and Saratoga II HP without.

The Payload Payoff
Presumably, pilots buy six-place airplanes so they can carry six people. Actually, its not as simple as that. Owners weve interviewed tend to want a six-place cabin to carry four people in comfort, plus a fair amount of baggage or even two people plus an enormous amount of stuff. One couple we know putters around the Caribbean on scuba diving expeditions, hauling all the necessary gear but no other passengers.

Thats not to say six-place singles wont carry six people but neither of the models here will do it especially we’ll if the flight is more than, say, 300 miles and there’s a lot of bags to haul. With that caveat in mind, lets look at some typical payload numbers.

The Cherokee Six/Saratoga line are the better haulers of the group and the earlier models did best of all, tending to be lighter than the newer airplanes, albeit with less fuel, too. The original 260 HP Cherokee Six, for instance, had an advertised empty weight in the 1800-pound range against a gross weight of 3400 pounds, leaving 1600 pounds for people, stuff and gas. Given real-world empty weights, figure 1500 pounds of useful load.

Sixes have either 50 or 84 gallon tanks yet even at the higher gallonage, you can top the tanks and still have 1000 pounds of payload, which works out five people and a bit of baggage or six people, a bit of baggage and three hours of gas. Given in-service weight gain, knock 50 pounds off these numbers to be safe.

As the Six evolved, it got heavier and lost some payload, although not much. The Cherokee Six 300 typically had a payload in the 1400-pound range with the same fuel options as the 260 HP version.

By the time the Lance and Saratogas rolled around, gross weights had been increased to 3600 pounds but empty weights-thanks to retractable gear and related systems-added to the empty weight and the fuel tanks were enlarged first to 94 gallons in the early Lances, then to 102 gallons.

In the Lances, with tanks full-again, 94 gallons-you could stuff about 1000 pounds into the seats; still five average people but not much baggage. With 102 gallons in the later model Saratoga, remaining available cabin load dips we’ll below 1000 pounds.

But lets consider the real-world mission these airplanes typically fly. One is four heavyish people with a lot of bags, say a couple of heavy Bubbas and their wives, plus 150 pounds of bags.

In this circumstance, the Saratoga still has room for full fuel amounting to five hours of endurance with reserves. But with the six heavies-1200 pounds in the cabin-the Saratoga will waddle into the air with 60 gallons of gas, enough for three hours and change, which is maybe as long as you want to be in that airplane with a bunch of Bubbas.

Turning the payload/range examination to the Beechcraft yields less impressive results. The old joke about the A36 accommodating six adults with no room left for fuel is no joke. The A36 has a gross weight of 3650 pounds and empty weights in the 2400 to 2500-pound range, for a best case useful load of 1200 pounds but closer to 1100 pounds in the real world. Stuff six heavies into the seats-1200 pounds of people-and there’s no room for any gas and youre already 100 pounds over gross. Leave one person on the ramp and you can carry 11 gallons of gas.

However, the B36TCs gross weight is 3850 against empty weights of 2700 pounds for a useful load of 1150 pounds. That extra load could come in handy in the form of fuel or bags but, nonetheless, neither of the Beechcraft should be thought of as a true six-person airplane.

Bonanzas have a reputation for having aft-tending, narrow CG ranges and while thats true of the 33/35 series, its not true of the 36 models. At gross weight, a typical V35B has a CG range of 2.3 inches while the 36 has nearly 7 inches of CG range toward the top of weight range. That doesnt mean you can ignore where you put the heavy stuff but loading options are more flexible than in a 35 series airplane.

Sixes and Saratogas are even more flexible. In addition to having a wide CG envelope which tends forward at light weights-so does, the Bo, actually-the Pipers have both a rear and a forward baggage compartment, the latter located between the engine and the main cabin. The Pipers nose compartment is not tiny, either, although it is deep and somewhat narrow. Having the option of loading forward reduces anxiety over putting someone heavy in the rearmost seats.

We also think the nose compartment represents a safety feature, too, offering the aircraft occupants some structure and distance from the engine compartment.

Bottom line: If weight and volume drive your decision toward a heavy single, the Six or Saratoga represents the better option than the 36 series Bonanza and the difference is about one persons worth of weight, which is not trivial, in our estimation.

One minor note: The Six is one of the few singles to have a zero fuel weight, meaning that the total weight of airplane, passengers and cargo cant exceed 3112 pounds, with the rest being gas. That means you have to take off with at least 48 gallons of gas.

Cabin, Seating, Comfort
If payload isn’t the primary issue for you, perhaps cabin configuration or seating comfort is. Many buyers can do with four seats, occasionally five, but want the cabin volume afforded by a larger fuselage, which all of these models have. There’s extra room for baggage and more room to stretch out.

The early models of the Cherokee Six were nothing exceptional as far as seating comfort and configuration is concerned. They had only forward-facing seating but they did have the rear cabin door, so you could actually get into those seats without being a contortion artist, as with the Cessna 210. Moreover, the seats are proper, full-size adult chairs, not the family seating thats a marketing euphemism for a chair that would cramp even a five-year-old.

As the design matured, Piper made club seating available and most-but certainly not all-of the Lances and Saratogas weve seen have this option. We would call it a mixed blessing, frankly. Its a better seating arrangement for two in the back rather than four, since four people tend to get into awkward leg wrestling matches. It the four folks in back are big, the club seating arrangement can be downright miserable.

Some owners remove the rearmost seats, giving unobstructed access to the rear baggage compartment for bulky items and providing more leg room for rear-facing passengers in the seats behind the flight deck.

Speaking of seats, Piper did a generally good job in this area, designing seats with crushable framework to protect occupants in a crash. Further, the cockpit glareshield is nicely padded. The pilot and co-pilot seats don’t wear especially gracefully, however. The upholstery tends to hog out and sag and when a gas spring in the seat elevation mechanism fails, there goes the seat adjustment. (Weve seen more than one Cherokee with a two-by-four shoved under the seat to hold the seat elevation.)

Access to the rear cabin is through a single forward-opening door opposite the front cabin door, plus an additional hatch-type door aft of that to open up the baggage compartment. Because the Pipers sit low to ground and tend to squat rearward, the rearmost seats are quite low to the ground and thus ideal for an elderly or handicapped person to enter and exit. No other single can make this claim.

In contrast, with its longer gear legs, the Bonanza 36 airframes are noticeably higher off the ramp and a bit of a stretch to climb into, both in the front and rear cabins.

Like the Pipers, the Beechcrafts have club seating, although early 36s had forward-facing seating. Actually, since the seats in later models can be reversed, owners have the option of either seating style. The Bos rear cabin is entered through a pair of clamshell-style doors that provide a larger opening than the Pipers, so its easier to stuff bulky objects into the rear cabin, if thats important.

One thing 36 Bonanza owners complain about but Saratoga owners don’t is lack of baggage space. The compartment behind the Bonanzas seats is smallish, hard to get to and there’s no cargo hatch, as with the Cherokees. On the other hand, the rearmost outer seat bottom had a keeper to stow it out of the way, opening up some valuable floor space for baggage. Indeed, some owners remove one or both of the rear seats entirely for baggage space.

In our view, the seats in Beech products are both more comfortable and more durable than those made by Piper. Even the older ones tend to hold up we’ll and the adjustors seem to be more reliable. Of course, for the price, they ought to be.

Heating and cooling in both airplanes is comparable, which is to say adequate. Both had air conditioning as an option but few used models have it and more than one has had the AC removed due to maintenance headaches. The ventilation system in the Beechcraft is somewhat better in our view, having airline-style eyeball vents in the ceiling and aft windows that can be opened for both ventilation and emergency egress. Piper favored an overhead vent panel made of plastic which inevitably degrades with age and looks tacky. It does, however, squirt out enough cool air in cruise to make the cabin comfortable. In cabin comfort and appointments, we think the Bonanzas enjoy the edge, especially during the summer, when those rear windows can be opened.

How Far, How Fast
In any aircraft purchase, you give up something to get something else. Give up money-a lot of money-to smell new leather upholstery and a glass panel. Give up a lot less to sit on threadbare 25-year-old fabric. In the realm of six-place airplanes, you give up some speed-although not if you buy the B36TC-and handling ease in order to carry heavy payloads.

Lets examine the Piper Six/Lance/Saratoga line first. Even at the top of the model heap, the turbocharged Saratoga SP, were not talking Bendix Trophy material here. In the teens, the turbocharged SP can be counted on to deliver about 170 to 175 knots on 17 to 20 GPH. You can shave down the fuel flow with careful leaning and perhaps improve the speed a bit with speed mods such as gap seals or LoPrestis go-fast improved cowling.

The turbocharged Lance does about the same while the non-turbod models, both the Lance and Saratoga retractables, can be counted on to motor along in the mid-150s on 16 to 18 GPH, again, depending on leaning.

The fixed-gear models don’t do nearly so we’ll and are best thought of as prodigious haulers for short trips. The older 260 HP Sixes cruise in the 130 to 140-knot range while the 300 HP Sixes do five or six knots better than that. At those speeds, owners tell us they plan for fuel burns of 16 to 18 GPH.

Bonanzas have a reputation for comfortable speed and its we’ll deserved, in our view. The A36s nip along at 165 knots on 14 to 16 GPH, depending on engine, while the TC models will do a solid 180 to 190 knots in the high teens and lower flight levels. Clearly, if the need for speed ranks high, the TC models are the ones to pick.

Range, of course, is determined by payload, since none of these airplanes-with the possible exception of early Cherokee Sixes with 50 gallons of gas-will fly with seats, tanks and baggage compartment full.

All of the Saratogas have 102-gallon tanks and owners tells us they can launch with full tanks, four people and bags with a comfortable still-air range of 800 miles. The fixed gear version has slightly shorter legs by dint of its slower speed.

When carrying moderate weights, the A36 Bonanzas don’t have impressive range. Even with full tanks-74 gallons-still-air range will be under 700 miles, with reserves; stretch that a bit by operating lean of peak. But, as noted, unless the rear seats are sparsely occupied, you cant fill the 36s tanks, typically.

With its 102-gallon capacity and higher speeds, the B36TC is the range leader, reaching out to 1000 still-air miles, but with only three adults aboard or two adults, children and light bags. Between these two model lines, range is a toss-up, with the Pipers enjoying an edge when cabin loads are high.

And then there’s the handling. Under the best of circumstances, the PA-32 line is truck-like, with heavy roll and pitch forces and will change noticeably with CG position. Control friction is occasionally an issue in the Pipers, if theyre not we’ll maintained. The 36 Bos, by comparison, are a dream to fly, although not quite as pleasant as the V-tails and 33s, which we think are the best handling aircraft in the GA fleet.

Maintenance, Cost
There’s no question that Beechcraft are more expensive to buy and own than Pipers, although the long-term ownership costs may be only slightly higher for the Beech, due mostly to high parts costs.

Heres a for instance: A 1980 Saratoga SP sells for about $171,000, according to the Summer 2001 Aircraft Bluebook Digest. The turbocharged SP has a slight premium, selling for $178,000.

A 1980 Bonanza A36 retails for $192,000 while the A36TC goes for $204,000. Interestingly, the price premium between Beeches and Pipers is not as great as it once was, which we think recognizes the fact that the Pipers get the job done just as we’ll as the Beechcraft do.

Each of these airplanes has its own maintenance bugaboos, beginning with engines. The IO-520 series used in the Bonanzas is one of the best engines Continental makes and probably, along with the IO-550, the smoothest running. Fitted with GAMIjector ( tuned fuel injection nozzles, the economy of these engines can be improved substantially.

Some early models were troubled by crankcase cracking-since resolved-and lately, premature cylinder wear. (Not resolved.) Further, because of baffling shortcomings, the engines tend to have cooling problems in climb, which doesnt help cylinder life.

Bonanzas have a reputation for being well-designed and we’ll built and this is reflected in the incidence of maintenance, which owners say is quite low. But when something does break, it can be expensive to fix, due to very high parts prices from Raytheon/Beechcraft. One owner complained of parts prices to make his eyes water. Another was shocked to pay $2200 for an illuminated sub-panel and $115 for a rocker switch. Owners say parts and support is good, but brace yourself for the invoice.

In contrast, the Lycoming O-540 series used in the Piper products is best described as maintenance reliable but unpleasant. Even with a carefully balanced prop, its a rough runner compared to the Continental six-cylinder engines and in the carbureted 260 HP version, its a prodigious fouler of spark plugs. Address that with ground leaning.

But on balance, the engine is probably more durable than the Continental equivalent, with fewer cylinder and case cracking problems, despite its vibey personality. As for the Six/Saratoga airframe itself, it tends not to wear as gracefully as the Beechcraft, according to owner reports. Nuisance items such as alternators, voltage regulators, nose and main gear struts, door latches and the like annoy owners. But parts are reasonably priced and available and the airplanes are considered straightforward to repair.

Which One?
In terms of value, these two aircraft lines are so similar as to represent little distinction. Youll pay a small price premium for the Bonanza in return for superb handling, better cabin comfort, a smoother engine and greater ramp panache.

Pay a bit less for the Piper Six/Lance/Saratoga and enjoy marginally more payload-depending on model-additional range, cheaper parts and more loading flexibility.

Bottom line: If you routinely haul four average people with moderate baggage and can afford the 36 series Bonanzas, we think its the better choice of the two. In addition, Bonanzas tend to appreciate faster than the Pipers do.

But if your payload calculations always come up 150 pounds short, the Bo will be an annoyance. Go with a post-1980s Saratoga or, if youre on a budget and speed isn’t important, a Cherokee Six.

Also With This Article
Click here to view additional Bonanza A36 features.
Click here to view additional Piper PA-32 Six/Lance/Saratoga features.
Click here to view “Performance/Payload” charts.
Click here to view “Want Factory New? Brace Yourself.”
Click here to view “Modding Up Togas and Bos.”
Click here to view “Model Histories.”
Click here to view “Price Comparisons.”