Piperís brawny PA-46 piston single is hardly cheap to own, but the Malibu-Mirage pays back with high-flying efficiency and luxurious creature comforts.
When it first appeared in the mid-1980s, the Piper Malibu was a head turner. Aside from its ramp appeal, pilots were intrigued with its high-flying pressurized cabin, 200-knot cruise speed and its impressive range.
There was nothing quite like it and Piper soon found a loyal market for its new flagship product, mostly among well-to-do owners who could afford to sink a half-million bucks into a new single and who flew the kind of missions where the Malibu shined.
Pressurizing a single isn’t easy—Mooney’s Mustang was a bust. Cessna pulled it off using a proven airframe in the P210, but it had its growing pains. Piper’s execution left something to be desired. Although owners generally raved—and still rave—about the Malibu’s impressive capabilities, it gained a reputation as a problem airplane. The engine and systems were finicky to operate, and dispatch reliability ranged from barely acceptable to just awful for some years.
As the model evolved and became the Mirage, its reputation didn’t improve. Indeed, some owners believe that with the Mirage, Piper jumped from the pan into the fire, especially with regard to engine longevity—or lack of it.
Yet, with time and the application of money, most of the problems got sorted out, and the fact remains, nothing quite does what a Malibu does. As one owner put it, “It’s expensive to operate for a piston single, but cheap for what it does.” We think that fairly sums up the Malibu. Anyone contemplating buying one should be ready to pay what we consider to be substantial maintenance bills, with the reward being fast cruise speeds above the weather in pressurized comfort and with reasonable payload.
Piper PA-46 Model History
The PA-46 is the last from-the-ground-up new airframe Piper has produced, except for the PA-47 PiperJet Altaire, but that didn’t make it. The turbine-powered Meridian uses the same basic airframe the Malibu pioneered but with substantial modifications. The Matrix is an unpressurized Mirage. The Malibu prototype emerged from the Vero Beach plant in late 1982, amidst much fanfare and excitement.
No one had seen anything quite like it. It had a long, rakish snoot housing a six-cylinder Continental TSIO-520BE rated at 310 HP and with two turbochargers, providing enough bleed air to keep the cabin comfortably inflated at FL250.
With its 43-foot wingspan, the Malibu looked as much like a glider as a powered aircraft. As one owner said, the thing looked like it was going 200 knots sitting on the ground. The base price was an eye-watering $275,000, but with accessories the typical invoice swelled to more than $320,000, or $550,000 in 2003 dollars.
Ironically, Piper launched the Malibu in 1984 into what was an overall GA slump. Yet Piper prospered with the Malibu because of its capabilities and unusual luxury. Although the company succeeded, its success was haunted by engineering decisions made early in the program.
As is often the case, the production airplane was heavier than intended, but this was offset by a boost in takeoff weight. Useful load worked out to be 80 pounds less than planned; not a deal breaker, but a weight equivalent to fuel for IFR reserves.
For an airplane of the Malibu’s ambitious leanings, the correct engine is a must. Piper never seemed able to find the right powerplant, however. From the beginning, buyers favored a Lycoming because of a perceived reputation for reliability and robustness.
The would-be owners turned out to be correct, at least initially. The Continental package evolved into such a nightmare—piston pins and crankshaft bearings in particular—that in 1987, Piper asked owners to ground their airplanes voluntarily until the problems could be worked out.
Many owners maintain that the Continental was and is a superior engine for the Malibu, but in 1989 Piper introduced the Malibu Mirage with a Lycoming engine. It was essentially the same airplane with a Lycoming TIO-540-AE2A of 350 HP. The new engine weighed 113 pounds more, but the maximum takeoff weight was boosted by 200 pounds. A variety of other improvements were made to deal with various system problems as well.
More Than Engine Woes for the Piper Malibu
The Malibu’s Continental power-plant got lots of attention early on—little of it favorable—but some of the airplane’s other systems didn’t distinguish themselves, either. The complex nosegear, which rotates 90 degrees to fit into its bay, proved delicate.
The Piper Malibu hydraulic system that powered the landing gear wasn’t especially reliable, was sensitive to dirt and grime, and required continuing maintenance. The hydraulics also ran the flaps on early models. To make the airplane appealing to what Piper thought was its core market, the company called for exceptional range well beyond the fuel specifics of most six-cylinder engines. Continental thus specified operating requirements for the engine that were unusual at the time, specifically lean-of-peak EGT operation.
To beat down the fuel flow, Continental required pilots to lean the engine to 50 degrees lean of peak for all operations below 80 percent power, which is the maximum recommended cruise setting. That went against what most pilots had been taught before the current understanding of lean-of-peak ops—and a fair number ignored the instructions and ran rich of peak.
Whoever was to blame for Malibu engine problems, squabbles between owners, Piper and TCM grew heated and ugly at times. The irony is that the fixes applied to the Continental made it as good as the Lycoming installation. Both are sensitive to proper operating technique. The lack of cowl flaps doesn’t help matters.
Is the Lycoming Better for the Piper Malibu?
Substituting one engine for another didn’t solve all of the Malibu’s problems and it brought some of its own, not the least of which is higher fuel consumption.
Owners suffered through Lycoming’s massive crankshaft recall of 2002 and 2003 and weeks to months of downtime.
The perceived reliability of the Mirage got so bad among some owners that a class-action lawsuit was filed in 2000 against New Piper and Lycoming. The suit was settled after the court failed to certify the class.
Engine reliability has not been good, although the airplane is such a good glider that many events didn’t become an NTSB report because the pilot was able to land safely on an airport. Our most recent survey of accidents showed that 17 percent were engine-related—no change since we looked at the aircraft roughly four years ago.
Maintenance is, as one owner told us, “a serious activity” for PA-46 owners, regardless of the powerplant type. Alternators, vacuum pumps and, in particular, the exhaust system are all items mentioned by our survey respondents and matched the Service Difficulty Reports reported to the FAA.
What we did see is that things have improved over the years. Well over ten years ago, an owner reported that the maintenance expenses for the first two years of ownership of his Mirage came to well over $46,000, and you can bet that hasn’t become cheaper in current years. While we have received reports of squawk lists on annuals reaching 25 percent of the value of the airplane, the majority of owners say that they recognize it’s expensive to maintain a pressurized single and if they stay ahead of the game, the price is not outrageous.
One reported that his annuals average $6500 for everything; another said $7000 to $10,000. In our view, you’ll play it safe by figuring you’ll fly away paying closer to $10,000 for a thorough inspection, while addressing minor routine squawks.
The PA-46 nosegear is tender and the hydraulic system continues to pose problems. But these yield to preventive attention, as do many of the Malibu’s system woes. Even ardent supporters of the airplane admit that it requires frequent and ongoing maintenance. Owners emphasize the value of having a knowledgeable maintenance shop doing routine and ongoing work on the airplane. The Malibu is not an airplane that just any shop can fix.
More than a few owners have had experience with several Malibus and/or Mirages. Is one better than the other in terms of maintenance? Our impression is that they’re about the same and that any owner contemplating buying a PA-46 should simply budget a pile of cash for annual maintenance and fix stuff as it breaks. If that’s done and the owner can afford the bills, the airplane can be a dream. As our recent owner feedback shows, many Malibu and Mirage owners have held on to their aircraft for many years.
Piper Mirage and Matrix
With the introduction of the Piper Mirage, some of the quirky systems were addressed. The hydraulic system was improved, the engine cooling system was redesigned, the cabin door was improved, the seats were strengthened and the flaps were changed from hydraulic to electric operation. (Actually, some of the later Malibu models got the electric flaps and improved hydraulics for the gear.)
The Mirage also got some big-airplane type features that owners appreciate, including a dual-bus electrical system, internal windshield deice, standard dual alternators and vacuum pumps and an auxiliary heater for the cabin. It needed it. It’s cold back there in the flight levels, even during the summer. Again, some of these mods appeared on later Malibus.
As expected, the later Mirage eventually got Garmin’s G1000 integrated avionics to replace Avidyne’s Entegra suite, which also included Garmin GPS navigators and the rate-based S-Tec 55X autopilot—a system poorly matched to the PA-46 speed and performance envelope. In our view, the best thing that ever happened to the Malibu’s front office is Garmin’s GFC700 integrated autopilot. Aside from its advanced features, it finally gave the airplane the tight autopilot performance it deserves, especially on coupled approaches. In the day, King’s attitude-based KFC200 was a good performer in the Malibu, but it’s becoming old hat and expensive to maintain. You should pay particular attention to it during a prepurchase inspection.
Priced at around $750,000 and welcomed with at least some skepticism back in 2007 (us included), Piper has done reasonably well with the PA-46-350T Matrix, which is still in the Piper lineup today. The Matrix is essentially a Mirage without the complex pressurization system that might increase workload to newer pilots. Plus, removing all of the pressurization hardware from the airframe bumps the useful load up to 1421 pounds, while fuel capacity remains the same.
It’s easy to see how buyers considering a new Cirrus SR22T or Cessna TTx can be swayed by a used Matrix and its luxurious six-place cabin, club seating, airstair door and its big-airplane look and feel.
You can likely pick up a 2008 Matrix for around $600,000. That’s less than an optioned-out new SR22T. A used Mirage has an Aircraft Bluebook suggested list price of $705,000. For those willing to deal with oxygen nose hoses, rather than cabin pressurization, the savings in maintenance costs, operational simplicity and perhaps lower insurance premiums gives the Matrix appeal.
The current version of the Mirage is the Piper M-350, which has an updated version of the Garmin G1000 to include an automatic emergency descent mode to help rescue pilots and crew if overcome by cabin pressurization failures and hypoxia.
Piper Malibu Cabin and Cockpit
The PA-46’s claim to fame is that it’s a six-place airplane with cabin-class comfort. Well, yes. Starting up front, however, the cockpit isn’t exactly cavernous. Getting into the seats requires minor contortions through a narrow aisle between bulkheads walling off the rear cabin.
Pilots who are wide of girth and long of leg will be cramped up front; the seats don’t slide back as far as they do in a Mooney or a Cessna. The cockpit is well-designed in both models with well-placed gauges and plenty of room for all the avionics you could ever want. Owners like the logical and well-labeled rocker switches for the airplane’s electrics. Later models have overhead switches that are a challenge for the presbyopic set and concern us from a crashworthiness standpoint.
The cabin arrangement is superb, with the Mirage somewhat better than the original Malibu. The airstair door is a plus, making for relatively easy entry and egress. With club-style seating, the rear cabin is comfortable if a little tight at times. Rear-seat passengers complain about too little heat—fixed with the aux heater—but the air conditioning/pressurization system is quite good, when it isn’t broken. Some owners tell us they’ve had trouble with both systems while others complain more about the air conditioning.
Cabin and cockpit noise are on the low side as GA airplanes go. The Continental in the Malibu is noticeably less vibey than the Lycoming in the Mirage, according to the ones we have flown.
Like most airplanes, the Malibu is not a fill-the-seats-and-tanks six- seater. But it will comfortably carry four people and baggage with full tanks, yielding a nonstop range of about 1400 miles for the Malibu and 1000 to 1200 miles for the Mirage. Typical useful loads are 1400 pounds and 1300 pounds, respectively.
Baggage space is generous, with two baggage bays, one just aft of the engine compartment and the other behind the rear seats, making loading within limits easier. Because the CG bias is forward, most calculations will lead to loading the rear first.
The Mirage’s Lycoming engine is larger and the accessory layout is different, so the forward baggage bay in the Mirage is a bit smaller than that of the Malibu. The inclusion of an access panel in the firewall is a good tradeoff, since it makes it much easier to get at the backside of the powerplant.
Piper Malibu-Mirage Performance, Handling
Malibu performance puts the airplane in a category with many twin-engine airplanes but on less fuel. Malibu pilots report cruise speeds of 205 knots TAS at FL220 at 67 percent power and 210 knots true at FL250 at 75 percent. Mirage pilots pay more at the gas pumps but in exchange, they go a little faster, with speeds typically of 220 knots at FL230-250 at 75 percent power burning 18.8 GPH.
Owners of both models say they can fly 1100-NM trips with IFR reserves. But we have our doubts about the fuel-guzzling Mirage matching range with the Malibu in real-world conditions. The power setting and leaning would have to be right. The -310P, with its lower fuel consumption—as much as 4 to 5 GPH when flown by the book—has nearly 25 percent better range and is only about 5 percent slower. One owner cited this as the reason he chose the Malibu over the Mirage.
On trips of any length, most owners climb rapidly into at least the high teens, but the airplane is perfectly at home up to FL250. One place it’s not at home is taking off from short runways. Initial acceleration is sluggish, although the airplane will get in and out of 3000-foot strips at sea level with relative ease. We would pause at operating out of 2500 feet or less.
How about handling? “A delight to fly, high or low,” says one owner. The handling characteristics of the PA-46 are indeed excellent, although they lack the rocklike stability that many instrument pilots prefer.
We’re not talking Bonanza handling here but the controls are responsive, with pitch the lightest and roll the heaviest. The PA-46’s long, high-aspect-ratio wing is good for climb and high-altitude performance, but along with it comes a low maneuvering speed in the mid-130s KIAS at gross, decreasing as the airplane gets lighter.
The long wings produce another undesirable trait: The roll rate at slow speeds is somewhat ponderous compared to other singles. Sharp stick-and-rudder work in crosswinds is a must.
During descents, it’s easy to get above maneuvering speed or even redline if you’re not paying attention. This, along with the autopilot and weather factors, was implicated in a string of inflight breakups that led to a great deal of consternation (and an AD-mandated restriction on operations) in 1991. But no positive link was confirmed and the airplane was given a clean bill of health.
Speed control is a must. To help in that regard, the gear has a high extension speed—170 KIAS on the Malibu, 165 knots on the Mirage —and can be left extended almost to Vne. The first notch of flaps can be extended at the same time as the gear. Pilots report that the gear makes an effective speedbrake. Retraction speed is much lower, at 130 knots (Malibu) and 126 knots (Mirage) KIAS.
Many PA-46 incidents occur during landing. There isn’t anything particularly difficult about landing a PA-46, but the long wing encourages floating and when lightly loaded, the CG is forward. These two characteristics sometimes lead to abuse of the relatively delicate nosegear.
As owners report, the PA-46 is well-supported by one of the best owner groups in general aviation, the Malibu/Mirage Owners and Pilots Association found at www.mmopa.com. The group has excellent information on ownership issues. MMOPA also tracks mods for the PA-46, which include three- and four-blade props, IO-550 conversions, long-range tanks, interior mods, plus the JetPROP DLX turboprop conversion held by Rocket Engineering.
Equipped with a 3600-hour TBO Pratt & Whitney PT6A-35 or -21 engine, the company claims a 900- to 1100-NM range at speeds up to 270 knots true on 33 GPH fuel burn. With a Hartzell or MT four-blade reversing propeller, landing distance is reduced to nearly 1000 feet. We’ve seen nearly 3000 FPM climb rates on DLX conversions we’ve flown. The company also does avionics upgrades to older models.
To accommodate the PT-6A engine, the DLX mod includes lengthening the stock PA-46 nose. The resulting forward baggage area is an impressive 33 cubic feet. Contact JetProp here. The company is based in Spokane, Washington.
Piper Malibu-Mirage Owner Comments
In 1986, I made a decision in which I am still reaping the rewards: I downsized from a Cessna 414A twin to a Piper Malibu single. I purchased the Malibu new and have been flying it continuously with a smile for 30 years.
I have an ATP rating and have logged 9000 hours of flight time. The reward of my downsize includes dispatch reliability just below 99 percent. I have flown my Malibu over 3800 hours (mostly for business) and about 70 percent IFR, year-round.
Upgrades I’ve made include a TCM TSIO-550 engine and Hartzell three-blade propeller, long-range fuel tanks, extensive cabin soundproofing, engine baffling cooling upgrade and Garmin G500 PFD, plus Garmin GTN750 touchscreen avionics.
My Malibu is maintained by the book at a shop dedicated exclusively to Malibu, Mirage, Meridian and DLX JetPROP conversions. Other than oil changes, it generally does not require additional maintenance between annual inspections. These inspections average $10,000 to $12,000 per year, with a low of $4500 and a high of $20,000.
Other than smoke in the cabin related to a burnt resistor, I have not experienced any inflight emergencies. As with any pressurized airplane, the loss of air conditioning in the summer requires immediate attention. The pressurization system has been flawless.
About 50 percent of my flights are under 140 miles and the rest are over 750 miles. Most long flights are above 18,000 feet. Generally, at altitudes above 23,000 feet, the airplane engine is not happy and requires perfect operating etiquette. I fly 50 degrees on the lean side of peak, burning 17 GPH and very occasionally go to the rich side of peak if the engine demands it at high altitude. Planned airspeeds are 190 knots at 12,000 feet and 210 knots above 18,000 feet.
The Malibu is a pleasure to fly in any weather, but you must be comfortable with a choppy ride in turbulence due to the long wings. The payback is an excellent glide rate. Although it is approved for flight into known icing, flight characteristics change significantly with ice on the structure. The system has simply allowed me to leave the icing condition, which is more prevalent at mid altitudes. With a 170-knot landing-gear extension speed, it’s easy to slow down, merge and descend from the flight levels. Range in no-wind conditions is 1400 NM with reserves and three people on board.
My biggest dislike about this aircraft is that it came from the factory with a plexiglass windshield, which interferes with visibility and the heating element. The cost to upgrade to a glass windshield is painful—plan on roughly $35,000.
My advice to potential buyers is to not purchase a poorly maintained PA-46 and demand an expert inspection on any one you consider. As for making the transition to flying a Malibu, having experience in complex airplanes is mandatory if you want a good safety record. Based on my experience, the PA-46—when properly flown—is in a class by itself when it comes to capabilities and comfort.
I may hold the record for the longest ownership of a PA-46, having bought mine new from the factory in 1984. I like the airplane a lot and have flown it nearly 3000 hours. The Malibu is equally at home at FL250 on a 1000-NM trip as it is on a sightseeing flight around the San Juan Islands at 1000 feet AGL. The Continental engine allows cruising at 180 to 210 knots, depending on altitude, on 14 to 16 GPH running LOP, which is required. I’ve found the cabin to be ideal for carrying Angel Flight passengers and their families.
As with most early production airplanes, mine has a relatively low empty weight and a very decent useful load of 1325 pounds. There’s a lot of flexibility to trade off between fuel and passengers, especially with the low fuel consumption and 120-gallon capacity.
Maintenance is a serious activity—I figure $7000 to $10,000 for an annual inspection—and only use shops that really know the airplane and maintain a lot of them. Insurance runs $6000 per year for $300,000 in hull value and $2 million liability coverage.
After owning a Cessna 182T and T206, I purchased a 2010 Mirage. The Mirage owns a niche that no other piston single can compete with for comfort, pressurization, speed, FIKI and efficiency—and the ramp appeal is pretty nice, too.
I found no surprises while transitioning to the Mirage. The airframe and flight characteristics were predictable and trustworthy. It sure is nice to fly above the weather.
Being a fairly low-time pilot at 550 hours when I purchased the
Mirage, I found the initial training and support from MMOPA to be invaluable. As a pilot and owner, I rely on the association for top-notch tech support, safety training, events and resources.
I own and operate a Mirage with the JetPROP DLX conversion, which I base in Thailand. I was told this plane is the best bang for the buck in its class, and I have not been disappointed during multiple years of ownership. Dispatch reliability is excellent—I average 250 hours per year.
I operate out of an 800-meter by 10-meter asphalt runway. How many other aircraft have a performance envelope that allows takeoffs and landings in that distance, on very hot and humid days, and then a climb to FL270 and a cruise of 260 knots burning 30 GPH?
The basic Malibu design has stood the test of time very well. Most ADs and Service Bulletins are historical, with very few recent issues. The support from the MMOPA is second to none. I spent an extensive amount of effort and time in the forums before I decided to buy. It was well worth the cost of membership.
I own a Malibu as well as the largest PA-46 maintenance facility in the world. Occasionally a pilot will purchase a PA-46 thinking it is just a little more expensive to operate than his/her previous aircraft, only to find out that some of the systems installed on the plane are quite costly to maintain.
For some of the early aircraft, it is not uncommon for an annual inspection discrepancy list to exceed 25 percent of the value of the airplane. On the flip side, there is no other aircraft that can do what the PA-46 does as efficiently and inexpensively.
It is important to get a prebuy from a competent shop. I’ve generated a discrepancy list of $180,000 on an airplane only three hours out of an annual at a Piper dealer. On the average, a prebuy will generate a squawk list in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.
Chad Menne, Malibu Aerospace
I have owned a 1990 Mirage for several years. After six months of ownership, I replaced the engine with a 460-hours-since-new surplus engine from Rocket Engineering (from a PA-46 that was converted to turboprop) and a three-blade prop conversion. The airplane will now do an ILS missed approach at Chihauhau, Mexico, without any circling or other gymnastics.
The airplane has been amazingly trouble-free, even when compared to a Cherokee. It is a pity Jack Riley is no longer with us; the airplane could do with a STOL conversion—our sea-level minimum runway limit is 3000 feet of pavement.
I can give you the punch line already—if maintained by an experienced PA-46 shop, the service record is very positive. The learning curve for the inexperienced is pretty steep because there are more systems than usual in a piston-powered airplane and the common systems are frequently set up differently.