When Piper announced back in early November that it was going to produce an unpressurized, roughly $750,000 version of its Mirage six-place pressurized piston single, the reaction from the media was, well, downright tepid.
At face value it seemed as though Piper was merely trying to lower the price point of its million-dollar-plus, cabin-class, pressurized offering while still keeping the Mirage a viable product. And worst of all, it was doing it simply by subtracting some value from it, in the form of pressurization. After all, the critics asked, how much can it cost to put the pressurization system in an airframe already built to be pressurized? The whole Matrix exercise seemed like a cynical marketing ploy designed to drum up a few more PA-46 sales, nothing more. One aviation publication even referred to it as a "deflated Mirage" and asked, "Does the world really need an unpressurized Mirage?"
Since that time, I've had a chance to get to know the airplane and to fly it, and as it turns out, the critics, and I was one of them, were dead wrong.
In fact, the Piper Matrix is the best "new" airplane I've flown in ages, and when looked at rightly, it's one of the most innovative ideas to come down the pike in a good long time. After all, how you get to a design shouldn't matter, just what you've got when you get there. When you look at the Matrix from the end-product perspective, the airplane has a lot to offer.
Think of it this way: Had a Matrix-type product come from a clean sheet of paper and from a different company, it surely would have been hailed as a revolutionary product. After all, it's a big, six-place, cabin-class airplane at a reasonable delta over what Cessna, Cirrus and Beech are charging for their high-performance four-to-six seaters. How much would Cirrus have to charge for a six-seat, turbocharged version of its SR22, or Cessna for a six-seat version of its Cessna (née Columbia) 400, if indeed such outgrowths were possible? That's right, probably right around as much as Piper is getting for the Matrix. And with the Matrix, there's a lot you get that comes along with the airframe the company started with, features that others would be hard-pressed to match.
In fact, Piper hasn't made much of a secret of the fact that it hopes to woo Cirrus and Cessna composite single customers to the Matrix. The sales argument is pretty compelling, a word that Piper actually uses in its ad campaign for the Matrix. As a step-up option the Matrix makes a lot of sense. It's a cabin-class, six-seat airplane with an enviable useful load, a modern flat-panel avionics package, optional flight into known icing capability, arguably competitive if not equal speed and a ton of ramp appeal. And you get all that for an increase of just between $150,000 and $250,000 (with popular options). Piper hopes a lot of pilots like the sound of that proposition.
What's in a Matrix, and what's not?
There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about just what the Piper Matrix is and what it isn't. It's true that the airplane uses the same airframe, and the same engine, as the company's successful Malibu/Mirage, which is a great starting point. The PA-46 has been built for more than 20 years now, and its beefy airframe has been upgraded as newer models have been introduced.
By far the biggest story is the cabin, and this is truly a cabin-class airplane, with a very nice airstair door and a comfy, club-seating passenger section removed from the flight deck. While not quite a bizjet level of comfort, the cabin comes close, offering easy seating for four. I sat in a rear-facing seat across from Piper marketing head Bob Kromer to see how much room there was. The answer was, lots. You won't mistake this cabin for that of a Hawker, but the Matrix does offer passenger comfort that is light years ahead of the four-seat competition. The luxury level is much better than a Saratoga, a 206 or even a Baron.
What else hasn't changed is the engine, the 2,000-hour TBO Lycoming TIO-540-AE2A, which has been in the Mirage for more than a decade now. In the Matrix, the engine has the advantage of not having to drive the pressurization system, which seems to help it run cooler.
So, what gets left out of a Matrix? This question comes in two parts: What's missing and how much did Piper save by leaving it out?
For starters, obviously, the pressurization controls are gone. That, at least according to Piper, saves them a lot of money. And it cuts some weight, too. Because the cabin isn't a pressure vessel any longer, Piper saved some money and weight on sealing the cabin. Also, the lack of pressurization allowed Piper to install much less expensive windows, saving both weight (some) and money (a lot). Also, there's not as much glass in the Matrix because the airframe was designed for pressurization.
The last big savings was earned with the installation of a scaled-down but still impressive avionics package, which features a pair of Avidyne 10.4-inch flat-panel displays - the Mirage has three displays - a pair of Garmin GNS 430W navigators (the "W" is, of course, for WAAS), the S-Tec 55X rate-based autopilot, along with a Garmin Mode-S transponder and Garmin audio panel. It's a nice clean panel layout and design. We prefer the digital attitude-based S-Tec Magic 1500 model in the Piper Meridian, but the 55X is part of the cost savings on the Matrix, and the 55X is arguably appropriate to the mission of an unpressurized airplane. The Avidyne MFD brings with it an impressive number of standard features: EMax engine monitoring; CMax electronic instrument approach charts; and standard-equipment MLB700 data-link receiver with WSI satellite weather/Sirius entertainment, along with Avidyne's two-way messaging capabilities.