Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Hottest Four Seaters

A look at new fixed-gear, four-seat singles

Video by Wilco Films, Plane & Pilot photographs a Cirrus SR22, Diamond DA40 and Cessna 400 over central California.

Apples to Oranges?
Potential pitfalls of aircraft comparisons

Aircraft comparisons of any kind are one of the most difficult things we do at Plane & Pilot. In the case of the four-seater comparison for our Buyer’s Guide issue (Jan/Feb 2009), we wrote that story in September and used the best pricing information available at the time, the then-new winter edition of RVI's Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest, standard pricing guide for the industry. The prices we quoted were for an average equipped airplane. Since the story was prepared, however, Cirrus has installed a full Garmin G1000 in the SR20-G3, and accordingly, they've raised the base price to a higher level.

Similarly, we sometimes have problems when we publish performance specs, because in some instances, the basis for a spec may be different with different airplanes. Some manufacturers rate their airplanes for 75 percent while others may approve operation at 80 percent or more. Some cruise specs are expressed at a mid-cruise weight, others are at gross. In instances when the appropriate number wasn't readily available in Aircraft Bluebook, we looked up the appropriate entry in Jane's All-the-World’s Aircraft. Our goal is always to make the spec box as fair as possible to all manufacturers.

Below are several corrections and additions to the Four-Seat Buyer’s Guide:

-The Diamond DA40 XLS is the latest model. We incorrectly listed this as the DA40 XL.


-A base DA40 (CS model, with G1000) starts at $259,950.

-A base Cirrus (SR20, with Garmin Perspective) starts at $269,900.

-Max cruise speed for the DA40 XLS is 157 knots. At 10 gph, cruise speed is 150 knots.

-A base Diamond DA40 CS has a useful load of 900 lbs. Full fuel payload is 660 lbs.

-A base Cirrus SR20 has a useful load of 970 lbs. Full fuel payload is 634 lbs.

If you’re looking to purchase a four-seat single, then you’ve got no shortage of models to select from. Aside from price range, the models encompass a wide variety of performance capabilities and equipment. 68% of Cessna 172 owners rate their aircraft a perfect 10.
The Hottest Four Seaters
The four-seat, fixed-gear single market is unquestionably the most popular segment of general aviation. That’s perhaps the main reason there are so many of the type available. In fact, there are more than a dozen variations of eight separate models in competition for the four-place dollar.

Which one you choose is dependent upon far more than the size of your bank account. Base prices range from $183,020 for the entry-level Maule MX-7-180 taildragger to $620,000 for the top-of-the-line, turbocharged Cessna 400. Such a tremendous price range suggests a huge difference in capability, basic equipment and performance. The Maule is a truly simple machine, whereas the turbocharged Cessna 400 comes standard with a Garmin G1000/GFC 700 and cruises at nearly double the speed of the basic Maule MX-7.

It’s important, however, to consider all the other factors that go into a buying decision. Price and cruise speed aren’t the only parameters that buyers consider when evaluating an airplane. Payload, climb rate and resale value are also major concerns, and lately, fuel burn has become an ever more important consideration.

Perhaps the first question is whether you really need four seats. Obviously, many pilots feel they do, or there wouldn’t be so many four-place machines available (and no reason to write this article). If your kids have long since moved away, and your partner doesn’t like to fly, a two-seater such as a Diamond DA20, Liberty XL2 or an American Champion Super Decathlon could work well, as there are currently no production single-seaters available. The ranks of production, two-seat models are truly limited, perhaps a half-dozen aircraft, so think long and hard about how you’ll use your airplane before making a buying decision.

If you fly with two people and plenty of baggage much of the time, however, the short answer may be “yes.” No reasonable pilot expects a four-place airplane to carry four full-sized folks and full fuel, and sure enough, only one of the airplanes surveyed does.

I may be typical of four-place aircraft owners: I’ve flown a four-seat Mooney Executive for the past 21 years, and I carried four people for the first time in a decade last July. I couldn’t legally do it with full fuel, so I left the tanks half empty and barely squeaked in under gross.

Is turbocharging for you? If you live on the East Coast or in the Midwest, where field elevations rarely exceed 2,000 feet, turbocharging may be too much of a good thing. Mounting a blower under the bonnet does provide an extra margin of safety at high-density-altitude strips, but it may be a frill you can do without if you rarely fly west, where the sky may start at 12,000 feet. A turbo obviously adds to the price of admission, increases fuel burn, may decrease range and usually raises maintenance costs.

Speed will always be a subjective judgment. Remember that it usually requires a disproportionate investment to fly only a little faster. If you simply must travel at 180 knots rather than 150 knots, you can expect to pay at least 40% to 60% more for the privilege. Most people don’t buy airplanes to fly slow, but speed alone is rarely the only goal.

Range is another consideration you should take into account. Analyze your logbook, and see how many long-range trips you’ve taken in the last five years. If your typical hop is 400 nm or less, virtually any of the four-seat singles will work. It’s true that your travel habits may change if you buy an airplane, but past may still be prologue. A long-range aircraft may be in your future if you often fly halfway across the country or do extensive IFR flying (with the additional reserve requirements).

The level of avionics sophistication is a significant X-factor you should consider, though some manufacturers take that question out of your hands by installing practically everything in the basic airplane. Avionics options can boost equipped price by as much as 25% on many new aircraft, and unless you’re rated, current and inclined for IFR operations, you may be able to get by with basic NAV/COM/transponder capability.

Similarly, more and more airplanes offer air-conditioning as an option, a feature rarely available until a few years ago. This is another item that deserves a second look. Installing AC typically adds $20,000 to $40,000 to the price tag, and subtracts 60 to 90 pounds from payload, so think twice about opting for it. Remember that you’ll typically only need the compressor for the first 15 minutes and last five minutes of most flights. If you operate from Palm Springs, Phoenix or Miami on a regular basis, AC may be a worthwhile investment. Otherwise…


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