Roomy, comfortable, parachute-equipped and possessing decent speed, the Cirrus SR20 does almost everything well.
The Cirrus SR20 wasn’t the first “plastic” airplane, but the composite Cirrus was far enough along the cutting edge to stir up the pilot community. Of course, some loudly asserted that no “real” pilot would want one of those things—it’s got a parachute, for crying out loud. Yet the Cirrus SR20 and its offspring the SR22 quietly and effectively changed ideas of what a personal airplane should look like, how it should be used and how it should be equipped.
The changes were evolutionary, not revolutionary—the first SR20s retained the familiar vacuum-powered round gauge flight instruments, albeit complemented by a large multifunction display. Today’s copies have eliminated the vacuum system and gone all electric, with full glass panels; round gauges are only there for backup.
Though living these days in the shadow of its big brother, the Cirrus SR20 has a lot going for it: It is comfortable, relatively economical to acquire and operate, has simple systems, comes with a well-defined support network and is faster than much of its direct competition. Later Cirrus models feature the most modern technology available in personal aircraft.
Refinements continue to be applied, not just to the instrument panels but also to major airframe components. Oh, and it has an airframe parachute, too.
Fourteen years in the making, the market for used Cirrus SR20s is mature enough to make it a very real option for buyers considering more traditional designs offering less.
Cirrus SR20 History
Cirrus Design began life offering a kit for the VK30, a composite piston-single pusher seating five. By 1993, company founders—and brothers—Alan and Dale Klapmeier announced kits were a dead end for them. Even so, they maintained traditional airplanes from Cessna, Piper and others were too hard to fly, lacked intelligent safety features and failed to push the technological edge in both design and manufacturing. “We have to lose a lot of this macho stuff,” Alan Klapmeier told us in a 1997 interview. “Making it too hard to fly is not a good value.”
What eventually became the Cirrus SR20 emerged from that philosophy and, from the beginning, was a different airplane. In addition to composite construction, its side-stick controller (really a half yoke; its movement is the same as using one hand on a conventional control yoke, not a side stick), swing-up doors and then brand-new multi-function display immediately set it apart from the traditional airplanes coming from Wichita and Vero Beach.
The most innovative detail, however, and the one garnering all the attention in the months and years leading up to the Cirrus SR20’s certification, was the Klapmeiers’ insistence every Cirrus sold would come with an airframe parachute as standard equipment. Their desire stemmed from a 1985 mid-air collision involving Alan Klapmeier, which resulted in the other pilot’s death. Based on that experience, the Klapmeiers realized no matter how well-trained or experienced one might be, there were situations where there was nothing a pilot could do to save the airplane, himself or his passengers unless some kind of “whole-airplane” parachute was developed.
The Klapmeiers gambled the parachute would make their brainchildren stand out on the market and resolve much of the anxiety many passengers (and more than a few pilots) associate with personal aircraft. At the time, no one had proposed equipping an airplane as large and fast as the Cirrus with a ballistic parachute. Reaction was mixed, with many predicting the FAA would never sign off on the idea.
They were wrong. Cirrus worked with Ballistic Recovery Systems through a number of designs for what came to be known as the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, or CAPS. The system exacts an 85-pound useful load penalty—and a recurring maintenance expense.
There is a six-year replacement on a pair of line cutters used in CAPS deployment that costs approximately $1500 total. That’s cheap compared to the 10-year CAPS repack, which is over $9000 in parts, plus 30 hours of labor for pre-2004 aircraft and 8 hours for later ones. The difference comes from a CAPS access panel added in the G2 revision of the design. We covered repacks in detail in a December 2012 Aviation Consumer article. We also noted the depreciation of airplanes as they come up on repack time may be greater than the cost of the repack itself.
The CAPS has proven successful in our mind at what it was designed to do: lower an airplane and its human cargo to the ground, giving both a chance to fly again. To date, according to the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), there have been 37 CAPS events in both SR20s and SR22s (this article originally appeared in December 2013, Ed). COPA points to 77 lives saved aboard the 37 airplanes. Notably and despite lore to the contrary, deploying the ‘chute does not automatically total the airplane. One of the first deployments involved an airplane whose aileron detached in flight. The pilot escaped without injury while the airplane was recovered, repaired and returned to service. In at least two other CAPS events, the airplanes were expected to be repairable.
The FAA granted a type certificate in late 1998, and the first airplanes were delivered as 1999 models. Cirrus initially offered the SR20 in three option tiers, originally designated A, B and C, which we’ll explore in a moment. Today’s offerings generally continue that theme, with the base airplane and upgrade packages, culminating in the GTS version.
Borrowing a page from Henry Ford, customers initially could order their Cirrus in any color they wanted, as long as it was white. This lack of color choices stemmed from an FAA-imposed limitation borne from a fear that darker, heat-absorbing colors would hasten the composite structure’s deterioration. As experience was gained, darker colors have been allowed. Most early Cirri come in a white or ivory base paint, with multi-colored striping. Both the SR20 and the SR22 carry a 12,000-hour airframe life limit.
Cirrus Model Differences
Trimble bailed out of the light aircraft avionics market before the first Cirrus was shipped and Cirrus wisely adopted Garmin for its panels. The A-spec airplanes came with a GNS430, a GNC250XL, an audio panel and GTX320 transponder, plus the ARNAV ICDS 2000, a then state-of-the-art multifunction display, or MFD. For autopilots, the “A” aircraft have S-TEC System 20s, upgradeable to System 30s, which include altitude hold. All of the early aircraft used vacuum instruments but had an electric backup vacuum pump. Rounding out the panel are analog engine and systems gauges clustered on the far right.
Meanwhile, “B” airplanes have a GNS420 in place of the GNC250XL, the System 30 is the standard autopilot and a Century NSD360 vacuum/electric HSI is fitted in place of a vacuum-powered directional gyro. The C-spec airplanes have dual GNS430s, System 55 autopilots, dual alternators and a Century NSD1000 electric HSI. Options for the “B” included dual alternators, leather seats and three-blade propellers, with roughly 70 percent of SR20s being loaded “C” models.
Beginning with serial number 1268 and the 2003 model year, Cirrus did away with vacuum systems and introduced the all-electric airplane. The A, B and C designations evolved to 2.0, 2.1 and 2.2, respectively. The all-electric airplanes have dual alternators—a 75-amp main alternator and a 35-amp secondary unit—plus dual batteries. There also are two busses, a main bus and an essential bus for critical load items such as nav and comm functions and lighting.
The 2.0 airplane didn’t change much over the old A airplane except in the case of the ARNAV ICDS 2000: Cirrus switched to the Avidyne EX3000C, a higher resolution MFD widely acknowledged as more sophisticated than the one it replaced, but—since it won’t accept external sensors such as data from a remote-mounted Stormscope—one intended for the VFR or IFR-lite pilot. The all-electric 2.0 offered a DG, but most buyers opted for the NSD1000 HSI. The 2.1 airplanes have an Avidyne EX5000C and NSD1000 as standard, while the 2.2 airplanes featured a pair of Garmin GNS430s, the EX5000C and a Sandel SN3308 electronic HSI. Most airplanes delivered have the 2.2 package.
In early 2004, Cirrus introduced the G2 models of both the SR20 and the SR22, featuring a new door design, better interiors, a redesigned firewall for improved crashworthiness and other upgrades. Cirrus says G2 airplanes have slightly less drag and are thus a knot or two faster than previous models. Later that year, Cirrus began offering the SRV, a VFR-only model intended for the training and low-end market. It was discontinued by 2010. For 2008, the G3 SR20 variant was introduced, featuring the wing from the SR22 G3, redesigned landing gear and a 50-pound useful load increase, among other changes. The new wing added a few knots to the airplane.
In 2012, a flex seating arrangement was introduced for the rear seat; the 60/40 split allowed room for three passengers and for the seat back to fold down in sections.
Many would-be buyers might wonder if an early Cirrus SR20 can be retrofitted with a PFD or if a vacuum model can be converted to an all-electric model. Cirrus says these upgrades aren’t possible, but kits are available to replace the ARNAV ICDS 2000 with the more-capable Avidyne EX5000C, and many of the early aircraft have already had this upgrade. This change accommodates state-of-the-art options like displaying remote Stormscope and Skywatch data, incorporates EMAX engine monitoring, XM WX datalink and CMAX, Avidyne’s electronic approach plate system.
Current Cirrus SR20 models start with a Garmin G1000 panel using 10-inch PFD and MFD screens, dubbed Cirrus Perspective, and then add options like larger screens, XM WX, enhanced vision, lightning detection, and traffic or terrain warning.
Cirrus SR20 Engine and Systems
All SR20s have been fitted with the same engine since production began: the 200-HP six-cylinder Continental IO-360-ES. It’s a somewhat unusual choice but one yielding sufficient power and remarkable smoothness. The engine’s TBO is 2000 hours, but overhaul costs are on the high side, at about $30,000. Throttle and RPM control are done via a single lever that moves both cables. Full throttle will yield 2700 RPM. A reduction of power brings 2500 RPM, where it will stay until power is so reduced it can’t be maintained.
This is done through a cable-and-cam arrangement that works well enough, but there’s no way to find an RPM sweet spot. Some owners have complained about rigging difficulties and trouble getting precise power settings. Most of these airplanes have three-blade props, but those with two-blade props (especially in the early years) may have better weight and balance numbers without a hit to performance.
With the exception of aluminum control surfaces, the airframe is entirely composite. The wing is constructed with a beefy, continuous spar. Control surfaces are activated via cable from side controllers mounted on the cockpit walls. Trim is electric only, with coolie hat buttons on each stick, a sore spot for some owners, who say they would like a manual trim wheel for backup and fine tuning.
The Cirrus wing has a stepped leading edge that’s supposed to stall the inboard section first—allowing roll control throughout—and be resistant to spinning. The airplane is not approved for spins, nor did it undergo official spin testing. If a spin develops, the first anti-spin response is roll input with ailerons, but the official response is deploying the parachute.
Cirrus airplanes are designed with crashworthiness in mind. The Cirrus SR20’s fuel supply, for example—60.5 gallons total, 56 gallons usable—is stored between the wing spars and well outboard of the cabin, providing significant crash protection. The landing gear is designed to absorb energy and flex into the wing inboard of the fuel cells, thus leaving them intact in the event of a hard landing or crash.
The seats are 26G-impact designs and each has four-point harnesses with inertial reels and airbags in the front seat shoulder harnesses on newer models. If the worst does happen, the airplanes come with a crash hammer so occupants can extract themselves. One major safety feature is the lack of yokes to impale front-seaters during a head-on impact.
Cirrus SR20 Performance and Comfort
Performance-wise, the Cirrus SR20 should be examined as both a high-performance airplane and as a fixed-gear cruiser. As a fixed-gear cruiser measured against the likes of the Cessna 172 or 182 or the Piper Archer, it’s respectably fast. Although Cirrus initially claimed 160-knot cruise speeds, 145 knots for the older models to 155 knots for a G3 SR20 is more like it. Cirrus notes that a slow SR20 should be checked for proper rigging.
Although the Cirrus SR20 is adequately powered, it’s not overpowered. At 3050 pounds for the later versions, it’s heavier than most airplanes with 200 HP. At moderate weights, expect 700 to 800 FPM initially, falling off to 500 FPM above 4000 feet. Given its weight and the power available, expect the airplane to be somewhat of a dog in high-density altitude situations. Owners say the POH is on target for fuel burn at about 10.5 GPH for typical cruise, 9.0 GPH when lean of peak. Still-air range is about 675 miles, with 45-minute reserve, when planning to use the full 56 gallons legally available. Down-fueling to the tabs allows more cabin load, but dramatically cuts endurance to less than two hours.
Initial max weight for the SR20 was 2900 pounds but a later service bulletin, if complied with, allowed a gross of 3000 pounds. The SR20 G3, meanwhile, has a max gross of 3050. Cirrus initially claimed a standard empty weight of 1875 pounds for a useful load of just over 1025 pounds.
Not really, say owners. Empty weights are typically 2000 pounds or more with useful loads of just under 900 pounds. With full fuel, that leaves 560 pounds for people and stuff. CG tends forward rather than aft. This requires heads-up flying, for the airplane is not blessed with an overabundance of elevator authority.
Both the front and back seats of the airplane are exceptionally comfortable by GA standards. With no yoke to obstruct the view, the front seats are like flying from an easy chair, with an expansive view out the generous side windows. The side-yoke controller is easy to adapt to by using a rest provided for your forearm. The airplane generally rivals the Bonanza in handling ease.
Cirrus SR20 Service History
Cirrus largely achieved its goal of building a low-maintenance airplane. There are 11 ADs on the airframe, two or which relate to minor issues with the parachute firing mechanism. Initial problems with hard starting of the IO-360 and failed starters were addressed with tweaks to the fuel system. Early models had landing lights mounted on the cooling baffling in the air inlet, which caused them to fail frequently. The mount was reworked and newer models have the light in the cowling.
A search of Service Difficulty Reports discovered fewer than 20. There were only two recurring themes: cracked spinner bulkheads and chafing ignition system wiring.
Owner complaints included an engine eating cylinders, fuel pumps and alternators not lasting and several Garmin and Avidyne repairs. One owner commented on 10,000-hour Mean Time Between Failure promises he’d heard for the glass cockpit equipment before buying and considers them to be nowhere close to reality.
Pre-G3 era fuel gauging was criticized, with one owner strongly recommending the CiES digital fuel sender retrofit.
Another issue, and one resulting in AD 2006-21-03, involves the brakes. Since all Cirrus models have free-castering nosewheels, directional control at low speed is done via differential braking. Some pilots may have used the brakes to control taxi speed instead of reducing power. The predictable result: overheated brakes, leaking fluid and the occasional fire. Depending on serial number, the AD calls for a one-time O-ring or caliper replacement, plus trimming the wheel fairings, installing temperature indicators and inspection holes.
An AD issued in 2008 (AD 2008-11-18) requires a 100-hour pressure-test inspection of the exhaust systems installed on early SR20s, serial numbers up to 1815. Carbon monoxide can leak into the cabin from cracked components, potentially disabling the pilot. We’re not aware of an alternative method of compliance.
None of the owners who have been through a couple of annuals and contacted us reported unusual costs. Note, of course, the ADs issued against the airplane so far have not involved the composite structure but, instead, involve systems or accessories. It’s still too soon to say that composite airframes are less maintenance-intensive than their metal forebears, but indications so far are positive. Certainly, corrosion will not be an issue, but problems unique to composites may take decades to surface.
Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA)
As for type-club support, you can’t get much better organized than the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA). The organization maintains an excellent website (www.cirruspilots.org) with both public access and members-only forum sections. It’s a must for any would-be Cirrus buyer.
Cirrus SR20 Owner Comments
I bought a 2009 SR20 Perspective new. In 1250 hours on the airplane, I’ve had some minor equipment issues: engine-driven fuel pump, electrical fuel pump, both alternators, two starters and two cylinders. The avionics have been reliable, although during a Perspective upgrade the incorrect value was selected for the type of oil temperature sender, resulting in high oil temp messages. The $500 sender was replaced as the first of what proved to be a lot of work to find the true problem.
The fuel gauges stink. I installed the digital CiES senders and recommend the change. I also like the LoPresti IceSkates wheel pants and BoomBeam landing light upgrade.
The airframe is strong—after hitting a deer on landing, there was only minor damage to the wing leading edge; repairs were cosmetic.
Jeff Bassett, via email
I have owned an SR20 since October 2002 and currently have 2042 hours on the original engine—with good compression and low oil consumption. It will come close to book speed, but I fly at 140 knots LOP at 9.8 GPH. At 49 inches wide, the cockpit is very roomy, a pleasure after years in a Cessna 172.
Both alternators have been overhauled twice, as has the starter adaptor. The airplane has round gauges, WAAS, Skywatch, a Stormscope, LoPresti landing light and HID TriTip wing lights. I’ve had many Garmin and Avidyne repairs. 10,000-hour MTBF? Not a chance. I don’t buy avionics insurance, as it would add about $10 per flight hour. The vacuum pump went at 1100 hours, but the electric backup kicked in seamlessly.
I constantly hear how difficult this plane is to land and that it’s impossible to fly slowly. It’s not true. It can be trimmed to fly hands off at Skyhawk speeds. Good landings are definitely speed sensitive, and new pilots to Cirrus are strongly advised to get some time with a Cirrus instructor.
Rick Beach of COPA has reams of documentation on the advantages of using the parachute versus trying an off-field landing. Prudent Cirrus pilots should join COPA to learn the good and bad of these airplanes.
What my SR20 doesn’t do well is climb in warm weather—but it is a joy to fly in cool weather and a pleasure to fly in IMC. If asked if I would buy another SR20, I’d say “yes” in a heartbeat. Would I upgrade to an SR22? No—other than climb rate, nothing is missing. The SR20 is nearly perfect for my needs; if it had a diesel, it would be perfect.
John Dolan, via email
I moved from a Warrior to a 2002 SR20 in September 2012. The things I like include the comfort of the cockpit; the side yoke, because it opens up so much more of the panel; CAPS, because it is insurance when everything else is exhausted (plus, my wife loves it). Also, it’s fast—it cruises at 140 knots and only burns 9 GPH; the MFD is great for situational awareness; and it’s easy to fly after you get transition training from a Cirrus instructor.
I don’t like the lack of ice protection—my next airplane will be an SR22 with TKS; maintenance cost—at $2500 for an annual, it’s twice what my Warrior cost; and the wheel pants make it difficult to add air to the tires.
I would buy this airplane again. I really love to fly it. Interestingly, pulling up in a Cirrus seems to draw quite a bit of attention, and I feel like I am treated better by ground personnel.
Anthony Sobczak, via email
I owned a SR20 G3 GTS for over three years and loved every minute of the experience. I recently traded up to a new SR22T-G5.
I finished up my private in the SR20 and got my instrument rating in it. I flew the airplane to Alaska; it is a great traveling machine. The interior is unbelievably comfortable.
The cost to keep full updates on the avionics ran $1443 for the U.S. or $1870 for the Americas. Running LOP, fuel burn was just over 8 GPH. My most expensive annual was $4200; insurance for a $2 million smooth policy was $3970.
There are some who say the airplane is hard to land. It’s not with a proper checkout and proper speed control.
Robert Sugar, via email
The SR20 is comfortable, has decent speed and is an excellent IFR platform. With a CAPS repack, mine has averaged $30,000 (Australian) annually to operate—for absolutely everything. Weak points are cylinder life and wheel fairing brackets.
Clyde Stubbs, Via email
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Aviation Consumer magazine.
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