June 2010 — BACK IN 1998 FLYING sent ace photographer Paul Bowen to Chicago to photograph a revolutionary new airplane, the Cirrus SR20. Editor-in-chief Mac McClellan flew the airplane and weighed in on such eye-opening new features as the BRS whole-airplane recovery parachute system, the down-and-welded landing gear (unusual at the time for such a fast single) and the signature Cirrus side-yoke. It's a little hard, 12 years after the fact, to remember the kind of controversy these features — the chute, in particular — generated, but they did. And it might be a little hard for those of us who have flown the two Cirrus airplanes to remember just how unrefined those first-generation airplanes were, but this, too, is true. The fact is that we were all just getting to know the airplane, the company and, indeed, the whole concept of the fast, composite, fixed-gear four-seater. The SR20 was that true pioneer.
That said, with Cirrus' introduction shortly after of the substantially more powerful and better performing SR22, the SR20 suddenly seemed like a footnote. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with the SR20; on the contrary, it was pretty much everything the company said it would be. But the lure of the 180-knot SR22 made the 150-knot-on-a-good-day SR20 look a lot less tempting. And that's not a casual observation. The SR22 outsold the 20 by a margin that some years approached 10 to 1.
It wasn't that Cirrus wasn't trying to sell 20s. From the start, it has felt that this 200-horsepower cruiser was a solid performer that was a great fit for a certain kind of customer. There just didn't seem to be that many of those customers.
The SR20 was simply overshadowed by its star teammate. I saw it firsthand. A few years ago I had reserved an SR22 with my shared-ownership provider PlaneSmart to fly from Texas to Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, with a friend. When a minor mechanical issue grounded my airplane just before the trip, the folks at PlaneSmart sheepishly offered me an SR20 instead. A bit surprised by their apologetic attitude, I responded that I would be very happy indeed to fly the 20 to Florida. I did fly it out, and it was a great trip. It took noticeably longer than it would have in the SR22, but that was for a maximum-range trip. And it was about 10 knots faster than the comparably powerful Piper Arrow on around the same amount of fuel and without the cost, risk and complications of the retractable gear. Not to mention the far nicer interior of the Cirrus. I was happy.
It should also be noted that over the years the SR20 has become a much better airplane. Part of that is a reflection of Cirrus getting better and more efficient at building airplanes. The first sub-$200,000 SR20s, it's widely believed, were sold at a loss, and Cirrus didn't start improving its profitability until it started being able to produce airplanes with many fewer labor-hours invested in each one. A few years back Cirrus introduced its SR22-G3, which featured, among other improvements, an all-new wing that included a redesigned interior structure and a carbon fiber spar. It was stronger, lighter (around 40 pounds lighter in the wing alone) and much easier to produce. Before too long the SR20 got that same G3 treatment, including the new, longer wing, along with a higher profile gear designed to get the prop farther off the ground. The result was a faster and more durable airplane that, in my opinion, handles better than the original does, with increased dihedral in the wing eliminating the need for the rudder/aileron interconnect on previous Cirrus airplanes.
The G3s also benefited from the many quality-of-life improvements Cirrus made to its airplanes, including a better looking and more durable interior, much better functioning and easier-to-use entry doors, improved soundproofing and better fit and finish, which included recessed switches, a whole new, easier-to-reach circuit-breaker panel and available premium interior options.
There were, of course, improvements in the avionics. While Cirrus originally thought the SR20 might remain a steam-gauge airplane while the 22 went glass in 2003, that notion was quickly dispelled when almost no one ordered either with anything but the Avidyne Entegra flat-panel avionics system that pioneered flat panels in small airplanes.
Then, two years ago, the same thing happened when Cirrus launched its Perspective by Garmin cockpit, an enhanced version of the G1000 integrated system with a remote data-entry keypad, larger displays and synthetic vision. At first Perspective was available only in the SR22, though Cirrus soon made it available in the SR20, and it has become a popular choice for private individuals who buy an SR20 — most flight schools stick with the Avidyne Entegra system in their more-pared-down SR20s.
Flying the SR20
My numerous long cross-countries in the SR20 have been excellent experiences. They are comparable to flying the same trips in the normally aspirated SR22, though the airspeed, it goes without saying, is slower, about 155 knots in the 20 compared with around 180 knots true in the 22. So a 500-mile leg in the SR20, figuring climb, which is slower in the less-powerful airplane, takes about 45 minutes longer. Tack together two of those legs, as is typically done for many of my trips, including Austin, Texas, to Phoenix or Austin to Orlando, Florida, and you've got a substantially longer day in the SR20 — longer, though still very doable.
The range of the SR20 is, likewise, less than that of the SR22, because the fuel capacity of the new SR20 is just 56 gallons, compared with 92 for the SR22. Still, with the miserly fuel consumption of the six-cylinder Continental IO-360-ES engine — 11.6 gph at 8,000 feet and 75 percent power — the SR20 manages a cruise range of 627 nautical miles, a figure that will put you in the air for just over four hours (with a 45-minute reserve), which is about as long as most folks want to be flying between stretches of the legs. This is about 200 nm less than the range of the SR22.