Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Hottest Four Seaters

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

We’ve surveyed 13 airplanes and hundreds of aircraft owners, and we hope this article helps you make an informed buying decision.

The standard Skyhawk is now the 180 hp SP model. Cessna has dropped the old 160 hp version from the lineup. The Skyhawk features a full, two-tube Garmin G1000 and among the most docile handling characteristics in the class. Realistic cruise is about 120 knots, following a 700 fpm climb, but Skyhawks are almost universally regarded as tough little birds. In-flight structural failures are almost unheard of, primarily because the airplanes can’t fly fast enough to generate the necessary high G-forces. Landings are easy, and Skyhawks still represent some of the most popular trainers.

10% of Cessna 350/400 owners fly their aircraft for business purposes only. 70% of Diamond DA40 owners rate their aircraft a perfect 10.
I bought a new Columbia 350 the day Cessna bought the company! The airplane, Cessna and the local Cessna dealer have all exceeded expectations of support and service. It’s built tough, with sleek lines, comfort and performance. I love this plane!
—Larry Fenwick, Fort Worth, Texas
I own a Cessna 400 with a partner, and it has been a great experience. It has opened up a whole new world to me and my family that didn’t exist heretofore.
—Milton Thomas, Summerville, S.C.

When Cessna assumed the assets of Columbia Aircraft last year, it elected to leave the airplanes pretty much as it found them. With their low-wing, carbon-fiber designs, the Columbias were very different from any Cessna we had seen before. Designed as head-to-head competitors with the Cirrus airplanes, the new Cessna models offer configuration and performance that’s similar to the popular SR22s. Both the 350 and 400 feature rheostatically controlled air-conditioning as standard equipment, along with the popular Garmin G1000 flat-panel display and GFC 700 autopilot.

Some people own lake houses or camps; I own a Cirrus SR22. I can go anywhere, anytime. It’s the ultimate escape.
—David Ostrowe, Oklahoma City, Okla.
In the last few years, the step-up Cirrus Design airplanes have become the most successful in aviation. In 2007, the Cirrus SR22 outsold even the Cessna Skyhawk, despite a sales price that’s nearly $100,000 higher. The SR22 bumps power up to 310 hp, boosting climb to 1,400 fpm and cruise to 185 knots. At economy settings, the standard SR22 can range out more than 1,000 nm. The Turbo model relies on an STC for a blower from George Braly’s Tornado Alley Turbos ( of Ada, Okla. Cruise is 219 knots at 20,000 feet.

The Skylane, one of everyone’s favorite four-seaters, now comes in two flavors: normally aspirated and turbocharged. Both airplanes use essentially the same derated, 540-cubic-inch Lycoming engine, and both offer 140-knot cruise in the bottom 10,000 feet of sky. The turbo model boosts top book cruise (88%) to 159 knots at 12,500 feet, and you can bleed even more out of it at higher altitudes. Perhaps ironically, the Skylanes have gained weight with age, and neither model will carry four big passengers and full fuel, formerly a major claim to fame on the older-generation airplanes. Still, Skylanes continue to rule as one of the world’s most popular, uncomplicated four-seaters.

The Austrian Diamond Star represents Diamond Aircraft’s entry into the four-place market, and the offbeat design performs very well for only 180 hp. Performance of the slick, composite airframe is nearly up to basic Sierra and Arrow retractable standards, despite spiffily spatted wheels hanging happily in the wind. The Star also offers something practically no one else has, a left-side back door for rear passenger entrance/egress. Combined with a powerful elevator and light, responsive ailerons, the DA40 is one of the most popular imports to the American market.

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.

Cirrus SR20
The low-priced model from Cirrus Design features a 200 hp Continental engine and a BRS parachute system. It’s a composite design that offers gull-wing doors and a huge cabin designed around the interior of a BMW 5 Series sedan. The SRV is the trainer model of the airplane, and the SR20-GTS is the fully equipped version. Both offer nearly full-fuel, four-seat capability, a 156-knot cruise and a low 54-knot stall.

44% of Diamond DA40 owners fly their airplane for pleasure purposes only. For 88% of Cirrus SR22 owners, their SR22 is the only airplane they own.
The DA40 is an outstanding airplane! The G1000/KAP 140 avionics suite is exceptional in IFR conditions and is vastly safer than older avionics configurations. The DA40 burns 8 gph@138 knots! —Trey West, Wilmington, Del.
MAULE MX-7-180
There are a myriad of Maules available, all four-seaters, but we’ll confine our analysis to the company’s entry-level airplane. The MX-7-180 is the traditional tailwheel airplane, featuring 180 hp on the nose. All the Maules feature the Piper Cub airfoil and a modified USA35b, and the result is a short-field performance hardly anyone can match. Maules of any power or configuration offer a practically nonexistent stall, the better to fit into short, unimproved strips. [See “Adventure Aircraft: Off The Beaten Path” for more on this versatile airplane.]

My PA28 has been reliable and inexpensive to own. I have had total satisfaction. —Mark Davis, Ukiah, Calif.
Now that Piper has a jet under development, the fate of the entry-level models is a question mark. For the time being, however, the airplanes continue in limited production. The 160 hp Warrior is a descendent of the old Cherokee 140, replete with a semitapered wing and avionics options right up through the G1000. It’s a 2+2 airplane, a capable trainer and even a decent family transport (for small families), but don’t plan on cruising above 120 knots or operating out of Denver or Albuquerque in the summer.


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