Editor’s note: Though neither are twin or turbine, these two make an exception to be included in this piston series.
I think the piston versions of the PA46 are some of the sweetest airplanes on the planet. They fit a nice niche between the unpressurized semi-cross country piston airplanes and the pressurized “big airplanes” that are sometimes multi-engine and often turbines – but that always come with a hefty operating price tag. Said another way, the piston PA46 performs as a “big airplane” on a budget, and this has made it a sweet spot in the market.
Created by a brilliant design team led by Jim Griswold and included present PA46 instructor and aerodynamicist John Mariani, this team dreamt big, producing a clean-sheet airplane that continues to stand the test of time. Simply put, there are other single-engine pressurized piston airplanes, but none that have the excellent pressurization, greater than 1,000 nm range capability, FIKI operations, cabin-class passenger comfort and flight control harmony that makes the piston PA46 a solid IFR platform. The PA46 is in a niche by itself, and this has placed Piper in the envious spot of having no true competitors. Yes, there is the Cirrus SR22 series and the Beechcraft Bonanza (both unpressurized), and the Cessna P210 (less-than-desirable pressurization), but there is no competitor that offers as complete of a package as the PA46.
The Piper Malibu was first available for purchase in 1984, and initial sales were strong as compared to other aircraft manufacturers. Because of liability laws that saddled manufacturers with horrific legal expenses, the mid-1980s was a time that saw most aircraft manufacturers slow production. Many simply closed their doors. But, the Malibu literally saved Piper. The Malibu was a fabulous design well received by the market.
The original engine selection for the Malibu was the 310-horsepower Continental 520. This is one of my favorite engines because it can be flown lean of peak, which allows for super efficient operations. A Malibu at FL250 will cruise at 210 KTAS and sip 15.5 gph. That’s stunning performance – literally the best efficiency of any airplane I’ve flown. And those numbers are not inflated. I regularly see that kind of performance on every Malibu I fly. But, the Malibu is not going to be flown at FL250 very often as it takes a long time for the Malibu to climb to FL250. And the engine (especially the turbochargers) are working hard five miles up in the sky. The sweet spot for a Malibu is the upper teens to lower 20s. You’ll fly in the sweet spot regularly and still see cruise speeds of 195 to 200 KTAS with the fuel burn being 15.5 gph at all cruise altitudes with “normal cruise” power selected.
With 120 gallons of fuel available, the Malibu can stay aloft longer than any bladder reading this article. Even at normal cruise power, the Malibu can fly for over seven hours (1,400-plus nm), but if you pull the power back to economy cruise, you can fly for nearly nine hours and go over 1,500 nm. I don’t know of any piston airplane that even comes close to that range capability. If your airplane has the optional STC to add 20 additional gallons of fuel, you can go even further and give your posterior chain a real test. The range is never an issue with the Malibu, so you’ll rarely tell the line guy to top it off as you do with most other airplanes.
Takeoff performance in a Malibu is certainly not brisk, but you’ll get off the ground in less than 1,500 feet and climb out initially at 700 to 1,000 fpm depending upon weight and density altitude. I normally fly a “cruise climb” of about 140 KIAS all the way up to the cruising altitude.
As time progressed, Piper wanted to make the Malibu better and some upgrades came along. In 1986, a new hydraulic system was installed. And in the same year Piper went to electric flaps. But, the real change happened in 1989.
From Malibu to Mirage
Purportedly, Continental had some quality control issues in the late 1980s with the manufacturing of its engines. This gave Piper the push to consider another engine manufacturer, and Lycoming was ready and willing to offer up their TSIO 540 for the newly styled Malibu Mirage. Lycoming also offered its engine in a 350 horsepower version, which made the PA46 look even better on paper.
So, in 1989 the Malibu Mirage entered the marketplace with the Lycoming 350 HP engine, a newly styled interior, a heated windshield (as opposed to the hot plate found on the Malibu), and a lot of hope that sales would increase. Sales did increase, but not all was well.
The increase of 40 HP with the Lycoming engine did not translate into increased performance. The suggested setting for Turbine Inlet Temperature (TIT) in the Pilot Operating Handbook (POH) is to “lean to peak,” which produces a fuel flow of about 19 gph. But, this creates a TIT that is far too high to ensure engine longevity. Early Mirages experienced cylinder failures related to the excess heat, and the owner population had to adapt. The only way to decrease the excess TIT is to lower the power (at the sacrifice of speed) or enrichen the mixture and cruise (at normal cruise power setting) with a fuel flow of 21 to 22 gph.
So, despite the increase in 40 HP, the Mirage is no faster than the Malibu and climbs no better than a Malibu – it only burns more fuel. The performance of the bigger 350 HP engine was also offset by the addition of about 200 pounds of nicer interior. If the performance issues were not enough, the Lycoming engine presented an internal problem for Piper.
The Mirage engine had huge crankshaft troubles in the early 1990s. Literally every Lycoming engine had to receive a new crankshaft, and there were some high visibility accidents associated with the crankshaft issues. To compound the problems, there were some fatal accidents in the early 1990s that caught the attention of both the public at large and the FAA. An airworthiness directive (AD) was issued by the FAA that seriously restricted the PA46 from flying its intended mission, effectively grounding the fleet.
The result was the airframe going through an analysis by the FAA that was akin to another entire re-certification. It was a scary time for Piper (which was also going through bankruptcy) and all of the Piper owners who had airplanes that could be orphaned. Fortunately, the investigation results declared the PA46 innocent. The FAA heralded the PA46 as a great airplane, worthy of certification, lifted the onerous AD, and declared that lack of proper training was the real culprit in the rash of accidents that plagued the fleet. Piper emerged out of bankruptcy and production continued.
As with most dark clouds, there’s typically is a silver lining. That silver lining was the formation of the Malibu/Mirage Owners and Pilots Association (MMOPA). The owners of the Malibu and Mirage aircraft banded together to save the PA46, and in doing so created an organization that has become the flagship of OPAs (Owners and Pilots Associations). Just about every type of airplane has an OPA, but MMOPA is one of the best in the industry, even today.
Piper Mirage Today
The Mirage has changed over the years in terms of styling, installed avionics packages and interior appointments, but it still has the same airframe and engine as back in 1989. Sales returned as prospective owners realized the black mark on the fleet was not because of a bad airplane. Today, with the addition of the Garmin G1000 NXi avionics, Piper renamed the Mirage the “M350,” and it is a fabulous airplane.
The M350 that rolls off the assembly line in Vero Beach today is the best version in a long line of incremental changes in the PA46, and it is exquisite. The Lycoming engine is a reliable and smooth performer, the newest interior is stunning, and the G1000 NXi avionics package is industry-leading. It is a mature product that performs extremely well.
So, which PA46 should you consider buying/operating? Those who migrate to the Malibu are driven by efficiency. It is hard to beat the efficiency of the Continental 520, and there’s an STC available for the Malibu to upgrade to the Continental 550. Both are smooth running, powerful and incredibly efficient engines. All of the quality control issues of the 1980s are gone in today’s Continental engines. If you like incredible range, cheap operation and low acquisition costs, look no further than the Malibu.
But you might have to look for a long time. They are getting older and some airframes lacked proper maintenance over the years. A Malibu that has received good care and feeding is hard to find – and typical owners tend to keep the airplane forever and won’t sell. A nice Malibu with all of the upgrades will fetch well over $400,000, and there’ll be a long line of buyers ready to gobble it up. Plus, Piper didn’t make many Malibus (relatively speaking). You might find a beat-up version with no upgrades, or one in desperate need of maintenance, but you really don’t want to be the owner who has to bring that airplane back to a high standard. It’ll cost you a gob.
I think one of the best deals on the market is a 1990-era Mirage. There are usually plenty of them available in the marketplace. They have the nice interior appointments, and the Lycoming engine enjoys solid support. It is going to require more fuel to keep it aloft than a Malibu, but fuel is the cheap part of owning any airplane. As you move to a more recent year model, the Mirage price will go up but the airframe time will usually go down.
The neat part of owning a PA46 is the airframe is “mature,” meaning that all of the bugs have been worked out of the airplane and excellent support exists. Piper’s mentality toward owner support has changed over the years, and it is far better today than ever before. With piston versions continuing to roll off the assembly line, parts availability and support are good. Also, there are plenty of maintenance facilities (both Piper service centers and standalone maintenance providers) that are dedicated to the PA46 fleet. With well over 2,000 airframes on the market since 1984, the PA46 fleet enjoys robust consideration from STC-developing entrepreneurs. The avionics manufacturers all have the PA46 lineup in their sights as they develop new products.
My point in all of this discussion? The piston PA46, whether Malibu or Mirage, is an excellent airplane for the owner that wants long-range, all-weather, IFR capability. If you are willing to own an older airframe, the Malibu is more efficient. If you want newer, the Mirage/M350 is incredible and owes a lot to the Malibu lineage. Both are fabulous airplanes that flat-out perform.