Air Compare: Piper Lance vs. Saratoga

Moving six seats from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible.

When it comes to Piper’s PA-32, there are several versions available at a variety of price points. [Photo: Stephen Yeates]

General aviation was booming in the late 1970s as aircraft manufacturers sought to compete in as many market segments as possible, often creating new categories and niches within niches along the way.

Among the best at turning out new aircraft quickly and on a budget was Piper, which evolved its 1960 PA-28-140 into a range of models from basic trainers to high-performance and complex machines. In 1965 the company stretched the four-place PA-28 into the six-seat PA-32 initially known as the Cherokee Six, designed to be a sort of fixed-gear flying station wagon for growing families with lots of baggage.

Using the same fuselage and wing, Piper next developed the twin-engine PA-34 Seneca. The use of recycled materials clearly was helping the company in its mission to respond to pilots’ varied needs.

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Developing a Six-Seater

By the mid-’70s, Piper wanted an airplane to compete with more-capable six-seaters like the Beechcraft A36 Bonanza and Cessna 210 Centurion. The company turned to the PA-32 design. All it really needed to do was modify the airframe for retractable gear. The resulting PA-32R Lance went on sale for the 1976 model year.

Over the next 30-plus years, the Lance continued to develop, sprouting a T-tail to become the Lance II and offering turbocharging as the Turbo Lance II. In 1980 the conventional tail returned, but the aircraft’s signature constant-chord “Hershey bar” wing had a new shape, with an attractive outboard taper. Its marketing name also changed to Saratoga, which the company produced, on and off, through 2008.

The PA-32 remains a popular model on the used market for the same reasons that made it a hit decades ago. For many people, it strikes the right balance of load-carrying utility, comfort, and speed. It is also stable and easy to fly. Pilots who trained in smaller Pipers will find the larger Lance and Saratoga familiar and comforting, but the design also has features that may convince high-wing pilots to give low-wing flying a try.

Lances and Saratogas on the market today might feature a wide range of vintage and modern avionics. [Photo: Stephen Yeates]

A Varied Market

Perhaps the most attractive thing about the PA-32 today is the number of versions available and the wide range of prices. Early “straight-tail” Lances generally come in under $200,000, and Lance IIs can also be bargains, in part because their T-tail design received poor reviews for pitch response—and many pilots simply dislike their looks.

The T-tail turbos also gained a reputation for running hot and other problems, but those tend to have been worked out on the aircraft that are still flying today.

While many pilots avoid the early turbo models, the Lances also have a following. They can be a good option for pilots seeking increased speed over long distances at higher altitudes. As usual, the mission influences our choice of aircraft, and some missions can be very specific.

Jim Barrett, a photographer who regularly shoots gorgeous air-to-air images of aircraft for FLYING, said he seriously considered buying a T-tail Lance several years ago, mainly because the horizontal stabilizer would cause less visual interference when shooting pictures with the airplane’s side doors removed. To Barrett, the tail on traditional aircraft is always in the way. Working around it is a perennial problem for aerial photographers.

Double doors on both models appeal to passengers as well as aerial photographers. [Photo: Glenn Watson]

Saratoga Moves Upmarket

Most potential PA-32 buyers prefer the standard tail and are therefore happy that Piper returned to that design when it rolled out the Saratoga SP in 1980. The new longer, tapered wing improved the aircraft’s appearance and performance by most accounts while a range of upgrades, including cabin appointments and cockpit equipment, meant buyers viewed the Saratoga as a cut above the Lance.

Saratogas are all over the map pricewise, but the nice ones are expensive, and the newest models from the 2000s typically land in the $300,000-to-$500,000range. The surge in used-aircraft pricing over the last few years seems to have affected Saratogas more than some other types, with even earlier models commanding surprisingly high prices. This could reflect the fact that many people regard them as aviation’s version of the large SUV, with three rows of seats and a wide cabin that families love.

Most PA-32s have club seating that makes it easier for passengers to converse, or for nonflying parents or older siblings to keep small children entertained. The aircraft has front and rear baggage compartments, which significantly ease loading for proper weight and balance. For passengers, the extra space means you can bring more stuff. Another feature that passengers appreciate is the left-side, double-door entry into the cabin. The opening is huge and appears to have been designed as a passenger door, not a cargo hatch that people can crawl through.

“It’s a great airplane for carrying passengers, which is how I fly much of the time,” said Michael Teiger, a retired physician with 3,200 flight hours who keeps his Saratoga at Brainard Airport (KHFD) in Hartford, Connecticut. His is a classic case of the machine matching the mission. He flies regularly between Hartford and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts (KMVY), and said his 1986 Saratoga, a fixed-gear version, has been a steady, reliable transport and a good instrument platform.

Bill Gennaro, a friend based at my home airport in Sussex, New Jersey (KFWN), owned a Saratoga for many years while his sons were growing up and recalled how it brought a degree of ease to long family trips.

“It was a Chevy Suburban with wings,” Gennaro said. He also described its handling as somewhat truck-like, not “harmonious” or “fluid” or other adjectives people often use when talking about their favorite high-performance aircraft. However, when it came to traveling with a family and lots of gear, the Saratoga was a winner.

“I wasn’t looking to bore holes in the sky,” Gennaro said. “It was just a great traveling airplane. You could basically set the autopilot, put your feet up and know you would get there soon.”

Club seating is a popular feature that gives the cabin an especially spacious appearance for the airplane's planform. [Photo: Stephen Yeates]

Which One Is for You?

While many shoppers will be able to find Lances with affordable purchase prices, they will need to look deeper into the ownership equation to determine which aircraft best suits their budget and mission. Saratogas cost more but might offer features that make them a better buy for certain pilots based on how they plan to use the aircraft. Because year-to-year model changes were few, most variations among different vintages of PA-32 are slight. Powered from the beginning by a 300 hp Lycoming IO-540, the PA-32 did not vary much in performance during its decades on the market.

Most owners say their aircraft cruises at a true 150 to155 knots. Piper continued to make fixed-gear Saratogas as well, which cruise about 10 knots slower. Newer models reportedly consume less fuel but do not fly any faster. Turbos can cruise in the 170s but are still considered slow for the category. Pilots generally do not buy PA-32s for speed.

Short-field operations in most cases are not part of their repertoire, either. Indeed—my instructor, Rich Bartlett, who flew a late-model Saratoga for several years, said the only downside of the design is that it “uses a lot of runway.” I recall a particular summer departure from Sussex with five on board.

I watched the takeoff run from the ramp, about halfway down the runway. All seemed well, and the airplane certainly looked like it had reached rotation speed as it lifted off and floated briefly in ground effect before settling back onto the pavement. For a moment, the airport’s 3,500-foot runway appeared that it might not be sufficient, but after another 100 feet or so they were off and climbing normally.

Cup holders and generous armrests give the PA-32 Saratoga the feel of a large flying SUV. [Photo: Stephen Yeates]

Focusing On Useful Load

Other than price, useful load can be the most notable difference between early Lances and later Saratogas. A Lance could carry more than 1,600 pounds, and overtime that figure generally decreased to just more than 1,100 for the last years of the Saratoga. Owners often talk about this downward trend in lifting capacity as a factor that influenced their buying decision.

“I think the Saratogas lost some of their useful load over time as Piper added more luxury features and equipment,” said Craig Barnett, owner of Scheme Designers, a Cresskill, New Jersey, company that designs paint schemes for aircraft and other vehicles.

Barnett moved from a Cessna 177RG Cardinal to a 1978 straight-tail Lance in the late 1990s, mainly because he wanted a bigger cabin and a boost in useful load to accommodate his growing family more comfortably on long trips. He also used the airplane to travel to trade shows and wanted more space to carry his displays. About the only complaint he had with the Lance was that it seemed like it should be faster given its 300 hp.

“When you are taking off, you feel the power. You know it’s there,” he said. However, the resulting acceleration and speed are always slightly disappointing. “You can tell the airplane is trying to get out of its own way, but it can’t quite do it.”

There was one other minor squawk with the Lance: its appearance. Barnett has spent his career obsessing over aesthetics and crisp, beautiful designs—areas in which the Lance comes up short, especially with its wide body and older-style Hershey-bar wing. “It was the chunkiest airplane I had ever gotten my hands on at the time. Not pretty, but it had what I needed,” he said.

Today, Barnett flies a Cirrus SR22 which, he said, has an embarrassingly low useful load compared with his old Lance. But the Cirrus is beautiful, he said, and his mission has changed. That said, few come on the market—even though Piper built 1,940 Lances and 1,621 Saratogas. Aircraft For Sale listed two Saratogas at the time of this writing—one 1994 Saratoga PA-32-301 with1,085 total airframe hours listed for $289,000, and one 1994 Saratoga SP with 1,952 hours total time was on the market for $319,500. For our sample table, we surveyed a total of 24 Saratogas and 13 Lances on the market at press time, with a fluctuating number for sale. So keep a careful watch if either mount suits your mission.

TypeNumber ListedMedian PriceAverage Airframe Hours
Turbo Lance II8$194,1234,084
Saratoga/Saratoga HP/II9$346,8753,023
Turbo Saratoga variants15$397,2172,613
In appearance and flight characteristics, the Lance and Saratoga are familiar to pilots of smaller Piper PA-28s. [Photo: Stephen Yeates]

A Considerable Portion of the Business…

“What are you gonna to do with an outfit that has the audacity to compare its six-place, single-engine, 300-horsepower, high performance retractable with a couple of classics like the Centurion and the A36 Bonanza, when the airplane in question cruises at least 10 to 15 knots more slowly?” asked FLYING editor Robert B. Parke in his feature on the Piper Lance II in the June 1978 issue. “Well, for one thing, if you’re Cessna or Beech, you’d better keep your eye on this upstart; for in spite of its lower speed, the new Piper Lance II is walking away with a comfortable chunk of the six-place business.”

“Whatever you may think about the Lance II’s lack of svelteness, you must raise a few huzzahs for the gallant efforts made to give the airplane a look of distinction. The paint schemes are pleasing, and the new T-tail suggests a revolutionary change in the basic design.”

This article first appeared in the August 2023/Issue 940 print edition of FLYING.

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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