It's been almost 10 years since Austrian manufacturer Diamond Aircraft launched its all-composite four-seater, the DA40 Diamond Star, as a follow-on to its successful but payload-limited Katana two-seat trainer. I went to the Diamond factory in Austria back then to fly and photograph the Diamond Star, though I have to admit that based on my experience coaxing the Katana (since improved with more power) out of ground effect, I didn't really know what to expect. The four-seater, with its fancy gull-wing style doors, big windows and slender sailplane wing sure looked nice, but I was wondering if the 180 hp Lycoming powering it would provide enough juice to make the '40 a desirable basic four-seater.
One flight was enough to convince me that my doubts were groundless. Diamond had succeeded in creating a pretty capable airplane. Moreover, the DA40's high-aspect ratio wing, its comfy interior (with plenty of room both in front and in back) and its pleasing handling characteristics made it a really fun airplane to fly. I cruised in and around the peaks of the nearby Austrian Alps in it, wiggling wings at the lederhosen-clad hikers on the trails below and just generally having a blast. And while the original DA40 wasn't fast-we almost got 140 knots true out of it at some altitude and power setting-it was an economical new family airplane that could be put to good use on regular cross-country trips of reasonable distance.
And the market agreed. Despite the DA40 occupying a sort of middle ground between more utilitarian four-seaters like the Cessna Skyhawk and faster, more powerful ones, like the Cirrus SR22, Diamond Star sales were strong and steady from the start.
And the airplane has only gotten better over time, largely in terms of electronics. A few years back Diamond gave buyers the option of the G1000 panel in the DA40, and it immediately became the de facto standard equipment. And as new avionics options-traffic, XM Weather, terrain awareness and the GFC 700 autopilot-came to market, Diamond and Garmin made those options available to DA40 buyers, making the DA40 a remarkably well-equipped personal four-seater.
Last fall Diamond introduced the feature-rich XLS version of the DA40, while simultaneously launching the budget-minded and pared-down CS version. At $334,950 very nicely equipped, the XLS costs about $75,000 more than the CS. It's clearly positioned as a nicely appointed personal airplane, while the CS will likely appeal to flight schools and other operators who want the economy but don't need the style.
Diamond's lofty goals for the new models were to make them faster, more comfortable, more luxurious and safer. Could it pull off such ambitions?
It's interesting to note that Diamond has come up with a new way of looking at the XLS-at least a new way of talking about it-and, by extension, a new perspective on the DA40 platform. It's no longer selling the four-seater as an ideal all-around airplane, though one can see why it adopted that stance. After all, before the launch of the bigger, faster and more powerful DA50, the DA40 was the top of the Diamond single-engine lineup. (And doubtless there were, and are, customers for whom the DA40 was all the airplane they'd ever want or need.) But with a higher-end single in the offing, Diamond has now started talking about the DA40 as the ideal first airplane. One presumes the ideal second airplane would be a DA50, a DA42 Twin Star or maybe, just maybe ... a D-JET.
The strategy is no doubt a reflection of the new marketplace reality for piston singles, one in which buyers of new, high-performance airplanes are not seasoned fliers but often low-time or even brand-new pilots with a transportation need. For years now Cirrus has positioned its 200 hp SR20 four-seater (a close competitor to the DA40) as a starter airplane that its customers could use to build time and proficiency on their way up to an SR22. With the XLS, Diamond seems to be taking that tack, and expanding upon it, positioning the XLS as a luxury starter airplane.
One of Diamond's main goals with the XLS was to make it faster, and Diamond wanted to do that, for a lot of good reasons, without changing the engine. Without the luxury of being able to aerodynamically clean up an already fairly clean airframe, Diamond was left with the need to get more efficiency out of the existing engine (though new, more streamlined wheel pants do cut drag some). This it did by going with a new prop, an MT three-blade constant-speed scimitar design in place of the two-blade Hartzell metal constant-speed prop. It also added the Powerflow exhaust system, which I've flown on a couple of different airplanes and liked a lot on both.
Would the modifications add to noticeably better true airspeeds? I'd have to see.