At last years EAA fly fest in Oshkosh, as the Cessna tent was wall-to-wall with cellphone-toting salesmen, we had to ask: With Cirrus and Lancair around the corner with high-performance singles, what did Cessna have up its sleeve?
The coy non-replies led us to believe an announcement was in the wind. But like everyone else in the waking-from-the-dead GA industry, we suffered from an overactive imagination.
No slick new four-placer was on the verge of being unveiled to the gasps of frenzied buyers. But the 206 would soon be available again. (Yawn.)
Then, late last month, an interesting press release came spooling out of the office fax machine: Cessna announced it was offering a new model called the Skyhawk SP. This is it, we thought, the long-awaited secret project we were sure Cessna had to have cooking in the Independence skunkworks.
Then we read the product announcement carefully: The Skyhawk SP is simply a regular old Hawk with a higher performance-read re-pitched-propeller, leather seats and fancy paint graphics.
It has the very same engine found in the new R-model Skyhawk, certified to 180 HP, versus the 160 HP in the plain-vanilla Hawk. (Dont forget, the Lycoming was already a 180 HP engine; its de-rated to 160 HP via RPM limitation because of noise concerns.)
Cessna says the unleashed additional horses yield a 100-pound increase in useful load, 10 feet-per-minute in additional climb performance and a knot of additional cruise speed. These options add $16,200 to the sticker price, assuming equivalent avionics. Bottom line: $16K for a prop, leather seats and a splash of paint.
Cmon guys. We were hoping for a bolder stroke than this.
Credit Where Due
Before beating up Cessna too badly-and, of course, offering our own bit of marketing advice-we should give Cessna a tip of the hat for its accomplishments in 1997. According to GAMA, Cessna delivered 360 piston airplanes last year-287 Skyhawks and 73 Skylanes.
In the overall scheme of things, that total was good enough to give Cessna a 40 percent share of the single-engine market, in units if not dollar volume. New Piper has 20 percent , Raytheon 11 percent, 9.5 percent for Mooney and the rest divvied up between Maule, American Champion, Commander, Avitat and Bellanca.(At two airplanes last year, Bellanca doesnt have so much a market share as postal address.)
So, even though its 1997 output was far below what it planned, in the space of barely two years, Cessna has gone from flat line dormancy to market leader. And that aint bad. Furthermore, as our customer satisfaction survey in the April issue revealed, Cessna buyers are generally satisfied with their airplanes, although we unearthed some complaints about quality control.
Overall, we think the new Skyhawk is a far sight better than the last one that rolled off the line in 1986; ditto the Skylane. Squawks about pricing notwithstanding, the new Cessnas are better than ever.
All of this modest success makes Cessna perfectly poised to strut into the market with that new-age design-maybe even a low wing-that we know theyre at least thinking about. A small gush of Skyhawks and Skylanes has primed the pump and attracted the interest of buyers.
What better time to hit them with a 175-knot, four-place single festooned with the kind of features and performance that veritably shout this is like no Cessna youve ever seen before! Somehow, a re-pitched prop and couch potato seating doesnt generate the kind of heart-fluttering excitement for which we pine.
One suggestion we heard is that Cessna should just buy out Lancair, Cirrus or some other maker of high-performance airplanes, farm out the development and turn loose its formidable marketing army to squash the competition like bugs. And why not? If nothing else, Cessna knows how to make big numbers of airplanes and sell them, even if the airplanes are, well, ordinary.
According to Cessna, the new SP model was prompted by customer feedback. New owners want more payload and, we suppose, slightly better performance. But we wonder if, when asking for that, they realized what it will cost. (It works out to a 12 percent premium.)
We suspect Cessnas announcement of the SP has some STC shops rushing to their drawing boards and word processors to bag a quick prop approval for those 300-odd Skyhawks already in the field. Such quickie STCs would probably deliver the same performance at a fraction of the cost. (Pass on the leather seats.)
A Modest ProposalHeres what we think Cessna ought to do: Scrap the SP idea-perhaps along with the soon-to-be 182RG-and pour all available resources into developing a new, high-performance airframe of the sort everyone assumes Cessna eventually has to do anyway. Even though weve never been accused of being Pollyannas, we think the world may actually be panting for Cessna to do exactly that.
Hang the sales cost. (Easy for us to say, but then thats our job.) We suspect theres little, if any profit to be made in selling $150,000 Skyhawks, new props and fancy seats or not.
Might as well bite the bullet and make $225,000 airframes. We bet the business plan will then have some light at the end of the tunnel.
So, what say Cessna? Cobble up a proof-of-concept mock-up in time for Oshkosh and well wordsmith up some gushy copy and save a spot on the cover for you. Promise.