In my experience, the single-engine turbine market has been on fire for the last few years. I train prolifically in this market and have noted strong demand for training services from pilots who are moving up in performance or size. I think every piston pilot has a desire to one day own and operate a turbine, and today there are plenty of single-engine turbines to consider.
I often train in the turbine PA46 (M600/M500/Meridian/JetPROP) world, as well as the TBM series of airplanes. So, I naturally get a lot of opportunities to discuss the differences between these airplanes with prospective clients. Two of the variants frequently contrasted in those families of aircraft is the Piper Meridian and the Daher TBM 700C2. I can testify that both are wonderful airplanes. They are different in many ways, but those differences are commonly compared since they are in the same purchase price range.
With its higher max gross weight (MGW), I think the 700C2 is the best variant of the 700 series of TBMs, and it is certainly my favorite TBM that can be bought for under $1.5 million. I think history will show that the 700C2 will be a popular variant of the TBM series for years to come. It is a true “sweet spot” in the production history of the TBM lineage.
Similarly, the early G1000 Meridians are a “best of breed” variant of the PA-46T line. All offer the GWI increase (not installed in the earlier Meridians), stunningly gorgeous interior schemes and feature the widely popular Garmin G1000 avionics suite.
Today, about $1.3 million can buy a nice TBM 700C2 with a mid-life engine, decent avionics and slightly worn but acceptable aesthetics. That same amount of money will buy an earlier (2009-2011) G1000 Meridian with around 1,000 hours on the airframe and engine. So, what’s the meaningful difference between the two airplanes?
Although the TBM looks bigger when standing next to the airplane, the actual living space is not that much more than a Meridian. When sitting in the pilot seat, there may be a tiny amount of additional headroom, but not much. However, entering a TBM is certainly simpler, both in the front and the back. The door is much larger and easier for the uninitiated to operate. But, the real difference is that the Meridian pilot must climb over the spar while there is no spar in the TBM cabin. This can be a bigger deal if you have mobility issues, but for most pilots, the spar is a surmountable problem (pun intended).
I do have one customer who upgraded to a TBM 700C2 from a Meridian, and he swears that “climbing over the spar” was the single reason that he upgraded. He felt it to be the right decision because he could not fold well enough to get into the front of a Meridian. I’m 6-foot-4 and can fit, but I have a lot of experience figuring out the best way to finagle myself into the seat. A taller or heavier pilot can certainly do it with some practice.
When it comes to the size of the cockpit and cabin, a slight advantage goes to the TBM.
There’s also not much variance in the short-field performance between the two airplanes. Both are fairly adept at getting off the runway respectably. I have a TBM client who operates out of a 3,700-foot landing strip and he has no troubles at all. While both POHs will advise that the aircraft can operate from strips shorter than 3,000 feet, there is simply not much margin for pilot error on such a short strip. I’d have to think long and hard before I’d accept such repeated risk in either a Meridian or TBM. As far as landing and takeoff distance, the two airplanes are very similar.
Concerning other performance factors, the TBM 700C2 (285 average KTAS) will cruise about 20 KTAS faster than the Meridian (265 average KTAS) and arrive at FL280 a few minutes earlier due to a slightly better climb rate. However, most experienced pilots know that 20 knots in airspeed and a few hundred feet per minute in climb in a turbine is not a game-changer. Block-to-block flight times for the Meridian and TBM 700C2 are very similar to each other, and the ride will be equitably good on both. How good? The TBM 700C2 enjoys a large and beefy wing, which to me is the best part of the TBM fleet. The large wing affords plenty of room to store large amounts of fuel, offers a smooth ride with slightly higher wing loading than the Meridian, and allows for a much higher Vmo (max operating speed).
With the high fuel loads, the TBM 700C2 offers significantly greater range than the Meridian. I advise clients that the Meridian is a good “750 nm airplane” meaning with full fuel, the Meridian can be expected to make about 750 nm unless the headwinds are punishing. But, the TBM 700C2 can easily fly another 350 nm beyond the Meridian, making it a true 1,100 nm airplane (and sometimes more if the winds are favorable and the pilot operates at a lesser power setting). There is a significant advantage to the TBM when range is considered.
A pilot can tell the strength of a wing by considering the amount of excess airspeed available on the airspeed indicator above cruise speed. When Vmo is significantly above cruise speed, you know a strong wing is bolted on the airframe. When operating the Meridian, indicated cruise speed (KIAS) is usually about 163 KIAS at high altitude and Vmo is 188 KIAS. So, there’s only about 25 KIAS available to increase in the descent – and that is only available in smooth air. In a Meridian, the pilot always pulls the power back to descend from altitude.
In the TBM 700C2, the cruise speed is about 193 KIAS and Vmo is 266 KIAS. So, when the TBM pilot wants to descend, it’s a simple matter of pointing the nose downward and leaving the power at cruise for a significant portion of the overall descent.
With all of this talk about the strength of a wing, don’t let it be said that the Meridian has a weak wing – it doesn’t. The wing on a Meridian is plenty strong, but the TBM has a higher Vmo and Va (maneuvering speed) and typifies the added benefit that comes with the beefier, stronger TBM airframe and wing.
When it comes to useful load, the TBM 700C2 is the clear winner. With full fuel, the typical G1000 Meridian can carry about three to four people (depending upon individual weight) with a few small bags. Whereas, the TBM 700C2 can easily carry five average people with everyone bringing along a roller bag as well. The TBM simply carries more.
So, if your predominant mission is to fly 1,000 nm with four people and bags, the TBM 700C2 will complete the mission nonstop. The Meridian will also accomplish that mission, but will depart without full fuel and require a fuel stop along the way. But this leads us to where the Meridian has a distinct advantage: operating and maintenance costs.
Not only is the Meridian going to burn significantly less fuel, it has a lesser engine reserve. The -42A on the Meridian will cost about $100,000 less to overhaul than the -64 found on the TBM 700C2. And the TBO on the -64 (3,000 or 3,500 depending on a few factors) is less than the TBO on the -42A (3,600 hours). So, the engine and feeding of the engine on the TBM will cost more than the Meridian.
The Meridian also has a significantly lesser maintenance requirement. The Meridian will undergo an “annual inspection” every year, and that annual inspection will average about $20,000 at one of the PA46-centric maintenance facilities. Yes, I know I’m going to get pushback from some that think they can operate a Meridian for less at annual, but I believe $20,000 is a good budget number for a Meridian annual inspection. There are a few hour-based maintenance items, but the airplane does not have any “gotchas” (super-expensive inspections) in the maintenance manual, and there will rarely be an item that will blow the budget completely.
For a TBM, there’s an A, B and C-Inspection in sequential years, and every item on those lists will be accomplished in that inspection. The C-Inspection is the most intensive and will come at the highest cost. I’ve seen C-Inspection invoices that were over $80,000 and there were not very many “additional items” on those high invoices. And some inspections occur based on hours and cycles. The inspection list for a TBM is much more robust than the Meridian.
There’s another factor that makes the TBM more expensive to operate than a Meridian. If you own a TBM, you’ll rarely take it to your local mechanic. You’ll almost always need to take it to an authorized service center. Rarely will a local mechanic be a “TBM expert” and feel comfortable enough to provide ongoing maintenance. While the level of maintenance at just about any TBM service center is super high, you’ll never necessarily “get a deal.” On the other hand, there are service centers all over the United States for the Meridian, along with some very good independent PA46-only shops as well. Your local mechanic can likely perform some of the lighter work, and possibly even accomplish an annual inspection.
So, which airplane should you buy? If you are a Meridian owner, should you upgrade? If you ask me, it comes down to one simple question: Are you willing to make a fuel stop?
The dreaded fuel stop. That is the deciding factor in this dilemma.
If you have a long way to go and you must carry four-plus people on a regular basis, and you are unwilling to make that fuel stop, then the TBM 700C2 is probably the airplane for you. If you have the identical mission, know how to do math, and don’t mind making a fuel stop, the Meridian is your airplane. Both are plenty rugged, gorgeous and safe. Both can accomplish the mission – but the Meridian will be cheaper to operate.
To me, a fuel stop always seems worse when planning. After a fuel stop, I almost always think, “I needed to walk around” or “I never want to be in an airplane more than 3 hours anyway.” But sometimes the fuel stop has to be made when the weather is less than ideal, and can occasionally be an issue that nixes the entire mission. Consider how problematic the routine fuel stop will be for you and weigh the added cost. Solving that question will help you make the best decision. Either way, if you’ve got the coin, both are stellar aircraft that will put a smile on your face when you open that hangar door.