By Robert Goyer
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.
The interior is also upgraded on the XLS, and Diamond did a commendable job of going upscale with an already attractive interior. Touches like upholstered interior panels, aluminum-framed wood accents and carbon fiber sill plates give the XLS the look and feel of a high-end automobile.
In its efforts to make the XLS a step above its predecessor, Diamond even modified the canopy, taking it up vertically on the sides before it curves toward the top, so that everybody gets a little more headroom, which was one of the complaints that pilots who sat up higher than me had about the design. The new canopy seems airy enough now that I’d guess that all but the tallest pilots will be happy with the headroom.
Getting Back Into a Diamond Star
It had been a long time since I’d climbed up over the leading edge (that’s right, the leading edge) of a DA40 to go flying, too long in fact, and in the interim, I?d gotten a lot of time in a number of other fixed-gear singles, including the Cirrus SR20 and the Cessna 182, both of which are competitive to some degree with the DA40 in terms of price and performance. I was looking forward to getting reacquainted.
I met up with the guys from Premier Aircraft, Diamond’s biggest U.S. dealer, at Austin Bergstrom to go Diamond flying. Our photo flight landed us at Llano Municipal, a small uncontrolled airport with a little FBO that’s well known for being hospitable to folks like us who were hoping to borrow a crew car and head over to the world famous Cooper’s Barbecue for a bite or two.
After that important mission was accomplished, I hopped in the XLS with old pal Jeff Owen, one of the most experienced Diamond pilots around, to go flying. Getting into the XLS is about as easy as it gets for a leggy low-wing airplane. Once on the wing, you just step in through the huge dual front gull-wing doors that make the DA40 more like a convertible than an airplane. The rear-seat passenger door opens just on the left side. And the rear seating area is surprisingly comfortable, and that goes for grown-ups and not just children. (Unlike most airplanes I write about, I have actually ridden in the back of the DA40 on a couple of occasions while taking photographs.)
Like several other new-production airplanes today, the DA40 makes use of differential braking for ground steering. With a wingspan of just under 40 feet, you do need to watch the tips when you’re around airplanes, hangars and other obstacles, but that said, the Diamond Star is a delight to taxi-light, responsive and able to literally turn on a dime.
Takeoff in the airplane reminded me immediately of two things, first, that the XLS is an easy airplane to fly.
This is, however, both true and a bit misleading. Unlike most four seaters in production today, the XLS is still very much a stick-and-rudder airplane. It’s responsive, honest and a delight to fly, but you really do know you’re flying it.
Second, on takeoff you also get acquainted with the fact that the airplane needs precious little runway, and once you rotate, you get up to altitude in a hurry. Diamond claims a sea level rate of climb of better than 1,100 fpm, and it feels like it.
All of these characteristics have to do with the long, sailplane-like wing on the airplane. Sailplanes are Diamond?s heritage, true, but the design makes a lot of sense in terms of European certification, in which noise output is an extremely important consideration. While the DA40 might be a little quieter than other airplanes, it does very well on the noise testing because it climbs so well. By the time it overflies the certification microphones, it’s 100 feet or more higher than most other airplanes, making it sound quieter to the mics.
And the big wing and slow landing speeds also contribute to the DA40 being a good short-field airplane. At max takeoff weight, it needs little more than 750 feet to get off the ground, and with a full-flap stall speed of just 49 knots, getting it down and stopped is just as easy.
As you probably know, the DA40 is equipped with control sticks, which, design-wise, are simple and light and work like a charm. But they can be a source of anxiety. I asked Jeff about it when I flew with him in the Twin Star, another stick airplane, a while back. He admitted that pilots with no stick time often worry about how they’re going to do in the airplane, but as it turns out, he said, it’s so intuitive that without exception they completely forget about it before they’re even up to pattern altitude. And the sticks, I have to admit, make an enjoyable airplane even more fun to fly. I commented to Jeff that the XLS, with its big windows and fantastic visibility, just cries out to fly low and see the sights. He just nodded and smiled.
While it’s fun to fly, the XLS is about as technologically advanced as a small airplane can get these days. The GFC 700 in the XLS is an excellent autopilot, and with the addition of WAAS navigators, it can now fly WAAS approaches automatically, flying from the en route phase of flight, to the initial approach fix, through a course reversal and down the “glideslope,” descending and automatically capturing the altitudes along the way. These are remarkable times we live in, when a basic four-seat single could be equipped with such a phenomenally sophisticated autoflight/navigation system.
But there’s more. The G1000 system is available with many standard and optional safety utilities, including electronic approach charts, satellite weather, terrain and traffic awareness and more.
All this stuff is not for flying around the patch; the XLS is a bona fide transportation airplane. And the new prop and exhaust system have helped make the DA40 a true 150-knot cruiser, which is a good deal faster than 200 hp retractable-gear airplanes used to be in the heyday of GA manufacturing. On our way back to Austin from Llano in the XLS, we cruised at 75 percent power and 10 gallons an hour at precisely 150 knots true. That figure gives the XLS an IFR range of better than 700 nm with the extended range (50 gallon) fuel tanks.
Ready to Fly
With the XLS, Diamond has succeeded in getting about as much out of the airframe as I imagine they can. And that’s a lot. It’s a reasonably fast cruiser with a decent range, its interior is comfy, clean and upscale, and its avionics package would be considered top drawer in a business-class airplane. For pilots who are looking for a roomy, nice flying well-equipped transportation airplane but don’t want or need the speed or cost of the bigger-engined competition, the XLS makes an attractive option. For some of those pilots the XLS might be the ideal airplane for building hours and experience while traveling in the system. For many others, it just might be the ideal airplane, period.