Ahhhh…the beloved Malibu…truly one of the finest breeds of airplanes in the world for GA cross-country flying. There really is no other airplane in its class to compare. With pressurized comfort in the flight levels, a cabin-class interior, solid icing capability, strong landing gear, a large panel to jam all the latest avionics, good cruise speed, extremely long legs (as in, “it’ll go a long way with the fuel on board”), and excellent economics, there’s lot’s to love. However, I’m not going to sugar-coat the downsides either. There are some draw-backs and any potential buyer needs to be aware.
The “straight Malibu”, not the Mirage (1984-1988 models), is my personal favorite of the piston version PA-46’s. I currently fly a 1985 Malibu and have done so since early 2010. Most PA-46 owners will tell you that the airframe is the best airplane in the world, bar-none…”firewall backward”. What that means is that the Malibu does have its issues, but nearly all of the major issues are related to the engine and items forward of the firewall. Of the piston engine combinations, the Continental versions (which come in the 1984-88 models) are, in my opinion, the better overall. Here’s why…
Engine: The Continental engine is the best piston engine for a PA-46 in my opinion for two reasons: smoothness and efficiency. Rated at a maximum of 310HP, the TSIO-520 engine is only bettered (arguably) by the TSIO-550 upgrade. With slightly longer stroke, the 550 has more power available at higher altitudes, but otherwise is very similar. Both are incredibly smooth engines. When combined with a 3-blade prop, the Continental is the smoothest of all piston combinations.
Efficiency is the biggest reason that the Continental outshines the Lycoming. The POH demands that the Continental be operated lean of peak during cruise. This means that 16 GPH is available in cruise at 70%HP, which results in actual cruise speeds of about 210KTAS at 25,000ft, and about 2.5 Kts less for every 1,000 lower that is flown. Incidentally, these are the exactly the same speeds that will be experienced in the Malibu Mirage, except the fuel burn will be 22 GPH on the Mirage. The ability to operate the Continental Lean of Peak should not be discounted. It is a huge factor in not only cost, but also in range. If the Malibu is operated at 65% HP at 20,000 feet, a fuel burn of about 15.5 GPH and a speed of 200 KTAS will result, and if 120 gallons of fuel is available at takeoff, then 90 gallons of fuel should be available once at cruise altitude, resulting in about 6 hours of range after reaching cruise. If extended range fuel is available (another 20 gallons fuel), then the range goes up to over 7 hours in cruise. The Continental-equipped Malibu can outlast even the strongest of bladders!
If there is a nemesis to the Continental engines, it is the starter drive and the valve guides. The starter drive is a weak point in the Continental and seems to “go out” every 400 hours or so. To replace the starter drive, the engine either has to be removed or a whole bunch of components have to be removed to provide access to the back of the engine. The starter drive is expensive and the maintenance to install it is extensive. If you buy a Continental, definitely take care of your starter and use it as little as possible. Learn to start the engine with minimal starter usage and pre-heat the engine in cold climates. The valve guides also tend to wear quickly on the Continental engines. Plan on doing a top overhaul at 1,000 hours SMOH and plan to replace at least one or two valve guides at about the 500 and 1500 hour marks. So, if you’ve got a Continental engine, plan on pulling a jug or two every 500 hours and correspondingly spending some money when you do so. When the engine hits each 500 hour mark, plan on the annual that year costing a little more.
Propeller: Bar none, the 3-blade is the best prop for any piston Malibu. It is the smoothest, the best looking, and the performance is slightly better. I’ve flown 1500 hours on the 2-blade prop and then moved to the 4-blade prop for another 500 hours. I could not tell any difference at all in performance between the 4-blade and the 2-blade. However, with the 3-blade prop, you do get a slightly better climb rate, which is a welcome addition.
Having said the 3-blade is the best, it is also the most expensive. To add a 3-blade prop, you have to get an STC for the conversion, and also you’ll have to pay for the replacement of lots of wiring for the prop heat. The airframe wiring on the PA-46 is designed for the 2-blade prop, and the 4-blade prop uses the same airframe wiring. So, the 4-blade prop is definitely cheaper to install. However, again, I saw no difference in performance. To install the 3-blade prop, much of the interior must come out and your mechanic will spend a lot of hours with his body contorted under the dash (with a correspondingly large maintenance bill). So, to me, if you are buying a PA-46 with a 3-blade prop it is worth more because it already has an expensive STC and corresponding airframe maintenance already performed.
If I owned a 2-blade or 4-blade Malibu, I’d strongly consider making a change at a time of major overhaul. But, get ready to pony up about $35K for the conversion altogether. Is it worth it? In my opinion, yes. But, you will get some disagreement amongst the ranks of Malibu owners. I’d definitely not go for the 4-blade prop unless there is some other ancillary reason that compels you.
Speed Brakes: The maneuvering speed (Va) on the Malibu is quite low and you will be well above this speed when descending from altitude to your destination. So, there is a definite need on the Malibu to reduce speed if turbulence is present without dropping power quickly and risking shock-cooling the engine. So, speed brakes have been installed on some Malibu’s. I’m not a huge fan of the speed brake mod because it shakes the padoodle out of the tail. There have been no negative reports so far that I am aware of in relation to this shaking, but it is disconcerting, in my opinion. I think there may be an issue some day in the future with fatigue on Malibu’s that have speed brakes, and so I use mine very little. I flew over 2000 hours on a Malibu with no speed brakes and simply got used to dropping the landing gear if I needed to slow down quickly. It was no big deal. So, and this opinion is really only an opinion…I’d definitely not add speed brakes to an airplane that did not already have them installed, and I’d not pay any extra for a Malibu if it did have them installed. It really is a neutral factor in my opinion.
One more thing…if you do have speed brakes, get some good instruction on when to use them and when not to use them. I’ve seen some pilots that use them in all sorts of weird flight regimes, and I’m waiting for a report of someone crashing because they forgot they were deployed in a critical phase of flight. Be careful, and don’t misuse them if installed.
Pressurization: Easily one of the best features of the Malibu series of airplanes is the pressurization. With a 5.5 differential pressure capability, the Malibu is a true flight level airplane. It works great, is mechanically reliable, and is one of the best features for buying a Malibu. In fact, I‘d think twice before buying a Matrix for it eliminates one of the best features on the PA-46. The system is the same type that is found on many airliners, so it really is a good system.
Icing: Any of the PA-46 airframes are solid icing platforms. All are certified for known icing and all have systems that are well designed and work well. However, as in just about any airplane, I never hang around in the ice. It is a good system to get through ice or get out of an unexpected icing situation, but I’d never intentionally plan to fly in icing conditions. The straight Malibu does have one difference over airframes made after 1988…the windshield anti-ice on the older birds has a “hot-plate” on the pilot’s windscreen, not a true “heated windshield”. Many owners, especially ones that live in warmer climates have chosen to take the heated plate off the airframe and simply not fly into known ice. This way the view is not limited by the bulky heated plate.
Interior: One of the principal differences between the straight Malibu and the Malibu Mirage is the interior. The straight Malibu interior, especially when compared to the Mirage, is certainly dated. Many older Malibu’s have had their interiors upgraded to Mirage interiors (accordion window covers, leather seats, etc.).
Without a doubt, the door operating system on the straight Malibu is far better than the Mirage. With two chains that are used to pull up the bottom door, there are few moving parts. It just works really well.
The front seats on a straight Malibu do not have reclining seat backs. I’m 6’4” and can testify that this really is a major issue if you are taller. There is an STC for a seat modification to increase the leg room, but it is expensive. I chose to have my foam cut down so my head doesn’t hit the ceiling, but there are times (especially on longer flights) when my butt can get really sore. In fact, if you are tall, you should really look into the seat of a straight Malibu to see if this type airplane will work for you. The Mirage does have reclining seat backs, and it makes a world of difference.
Cockpit instrumentation: All of the straight Malibu’s have “steam gauges” configured in a traditional “6-pack” with ancillary instruments well placed on the periphery. The center section of the dash has the space for the avionics. Most of the avionics have been upgraded in most airplanes. If not, there is plenty of room for the latest and greatest gadgets. There is also co-pilot instruments on the right side of the dash. Most newer Malibu’s have really nice digital panels, and the older versions stand out for they will almost all have the older instruments. As a cross-country airplane, the Malibu has a very nice cockpit lay-out. Most have the KFC-150 Autopilot, a very nice autopilot that has served the fleet well for many years.