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Lawn mowers & tractors

Lawn mower & tractor buying guide

Last updated: July 2014

Getting started

A gas or electric push mower is fine for a many suburban lawns. But you'll probably prefer a self-propelled gas model for slopes and a lawn tractor for a lawn one-half acre or larger. While an old-fashioned manual reel mower without an engine or motor is the greenest choice for small areas, our tests have show than many require more effort than you may have bargained for while delivering less-than-stellar mowing. For help with your selection, use this lawn mower and tractor guide.

Forget about numbers

Our latest tests confirm that larger or higher-torque engines don't necessarily mean higher-quality mowing. Those same results have held for the horsepower figures still used for rider and tractor engines: Check our Ratings (available to subscribers) for top performers.

We've also found that you don't have to pay top dollar to get a great mower or tractor.Several models cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars less than our top-scoring machines, yet perform virtually as well. But our latest tests also show that paying just a little more often buys a lot more mower, especially at the lower end of the price spectrum.

And no matter which mower you buy, use common sense when operating it. Wear ear plugs or other ear protection; all of the gas-powered machines we tested emitted more than the 85 decibels at which we recommend hearing protection. Don't mow on grades steeper than 15 percent. Look behind you when you mow in reverse. Some respondents to our recent lawn survey drank, listened to music, and even texted as they mowed. We suggest saving those and other distractions until after you're done.

How to choose

Consider your mowing. Most mowers come ready to mulch, bag, or side-discharge clippings. But mulching or bagging with a riding machine usually requires a kit that costs $50 to $500.

Check features and controls. Most tractors and riders let you speed up or slow down with a convenient pedal instead of a lever. Among self-propelled mowers, Toro models let you vary speed simply by pushing the handlebar, while Hondas let you adjust the ground speed without removing your hands from the handlebar.

Think twice about zero-turn riders if you're property is hilly. Rear-steering wheels give zero-turn-radius riders their tight turns but make them difficult to control on steep slopes. Exceptions include mowers that have steerable front wheels and steering wheels instead of the usual levers--though a relatively high repair rate in our brand-repair surveys has kept some models off our list of top picks.

Types

Mowing options range from $100 manual reel mowers to $4,000-plus tractors and zero-turn-radius machines. Here are the types of lawn mowers and tractors to consider.

Manual-reel mowers


These most traditional of mowers don't pollute--and you won't need to store gas or a power cord. Pushing them turns a series of curved blades. Because they have no engine, they're also quiet and inexpensive, relatively safe, and require little upkeep beyond blade adjustments and sharpening. Some models use a battery-powered motor to spin the blades while you push the mower. But swaths are typically 14 to 18 inches wide, cutting tends to be uneven, and most can't cut taller than 1½ inches or trim closer than 3 inches around obstacles. They don't disburse clippings like a rotary mower, so you'll need a bag (or a rake) if you're fussy. And be prepared for some strenuous pushing if you let your lawn grow too high.

Electric mowers

These walk-behind mowers are good for small, level lawns. They use an electric motor to turn a rotating blade and, for some, drive the wheels. Cord and cordless types start with push-button ease, produce no exhaust emissions at the machine, and require little upkeep beyond blade sharpening. Most offer a side or rear bag and a mulching mode that cuts clippings finely enough that they settle within the lawn and fertilize it as they decompose. Cordless mowers weigh and cost considerably more than corded models, but they aren't tethered to a power outlet and free you from a cord--a concern on lawns with trees and other obstacles. What's more, today's cordless models run longer per charge than previous models. But while the best electrics perform as well as some gas mowers, they can't match the best gas machines in tall or thick grass and weeds. Electrics also take a smaller bite with each pass--typically just 18 to 20 inches wide.

Gas-powered mowers


These include push and self-propelled models. All we've tested now have a four-stroke engine, typically with a 160- to 190-cubic-centimeter displacement, a measure that has replaced horsepower ratings. Some also list torque, or twisting force. Most cut a 21- or 22-inch swath, can handle long or thick grass and weeds, and can bag, side-discharge, and mulch clippings. Self-propelled models are best for most lawns and blend ease and performance. But gas mowers are noisy and produce exhaust emissions--though today's models emit far less than those of the past--and the engine requires regular tune-ups and oil changes.

Lawn tractors


These front-engine riding machines are often priced comparably with older, smaller, and less-capable rear-engine riders. Most mow a 42- to 48-inch swath and can bag, mulch, and side-discharge clippings. Some cut an even wider swath and offer four-wheel steering for tighter turns. All accept snow throwers and other tools, though those add-ons are typically expensive and a chore to attach and detach. Bagging kits also tend to be expensive--a major reason why most tractors do most of their mowing in the side-discharge or mulching modes. And even today's cleaner machines create exhaust emissions and still require about 4 by 6 feet of storage space.

Zero-turn-radius mowers


These riding mowers are similar to the ones landscapers use, with a rear-engine and rear-wheel steering. Maneuverability is their strong suit. Some have steering wheels though most have twin steering levers let you power the two rear wheels individually; with one wheel in forward and the other in reverse, they can turn circles in one place. They can also side-discharge, bag, and mulch clippings and typically mow a 42- to 48-inch swath. But they cost more than most tractors and typically don't cut as well overall. Their rear-steering wheels can tear up grass during turns. They can lose traction and be hard to steer and control on hills, and their lever controls for steering and ground speed require practice. And as for tractors, bagging kits tend to be pricey. For a large lawn with lots of obstacles, consider a four-wheel-steer tractor. You'll also find more two-wheel-steer tractors with narrower turning circles than before.

Robotic mowers


Rising sales of robotic cordless vacuum cleaners have spawned robotic electric mowers, which buzz along on their own--typically within a perimeter wire that sets the mowing boundaries. They're designed to crisscross randomly, reverse direction when they reach the wire or an obstacle, and return to a charging station when necessary. These niche machines produce no emissions at the source, but their performance varies widely. Cut quality is often less than a conventional mower's. Robotic mowers are expensive and should be supervised. Indeed, manufacturers often warn you to keep children and pets away while the machine is running.

Features


Depending on what you want to spend, there's a wide selection of lawn mower and tractor features and options available. Don't load up on features that you won't use--it's best to cut costs and the grass.

Swivel front wheels


For mowers: These allow easy 180-degree turns, but they can be tricky on hills. Also, the wheels prevent the front of the deck from cutting close up against foundations and walls.

Deck

For mowers: Some models come with a corrosion-resistant aluminum or plastic deck.

Mode changes

For mowers: Most mowers let you switch to bagging, side discharge, or mulching without using tools.

Infinite drive speeds

For mowers: Many mowers let you vary speed with a lever or handlebar control, typically from 1 to 3 1/2 mph withouthaving to shift between set ranges.

Clippings bag


For mowers: Rear-bag models tend to cost more, but the bag generally holds more than a side bag and eases maneuvering.

Washout port

This fitting accepts a hose for clearing clippings beneath the deck. This means you don't have to tip a mower on its side to get beneath it.

Sliding-clip cord keeper or flip-over handle

For electric mowers: On corded electric mowers, this feature helps you to avoid running over the cord when you turn the machine.

Premium engine

For mowers: An engine with overhead valves or an overhead camshaft should run more efficiently and start more easily than a traditional side-valve mower engine as it ages.

Blade-brake clutch


For mowers: When you release the handlebar, the clutch stops the blade but not the engine, so you don't have to restart the engine to empty a full bag of clippings or to move a toy or lawn chair.

Electric starter


For mowers: Standard on some models and optional on others, it eliminates the inconvenience of pull-starting the engine.

Rear-wheel drive

For mowers: On self-propelled mowers, it provides better traction than front-wheel-drive, especially uphill with a full bag of clippings.

One-lever height adjustment

For mowers: Some walk-behind self-propelled mowers have this feature, which lets you raise or lower the entire mowing deck at once. Most require adjusting each of the four wheels.

Uniform wheel sizes

For mowers: Some mowers have high rear wheels that are larger than the front wheels. Models with same-size front and rear wheels tend to be easier to maneuver and tip back for U-turns at the end of a row.

Automatic drive


For tractors and zero-turn riders: Unlike gear-drive models, which require manual shifts from one ground-speed range to the next, models with automatic drive vary ground speed infinitely via a hydrostatic transmission or other system. Most are now controlled with a pedal rather than a lever. Prices are falling for models with this feature.

Cruise control

For tractors: As in a car, cruise control lets you lock in a ground speed.

Cup holder


For tractors: You'll appreciate this convenience when you're working in the hot sun.

Easy mode changes

For tractors: Most models require a blade change to mulch, some to bag.

Electric power takeoff switch

For tractors: This switch lets you engage the blades without pulling a lever. This feature extends belt life.

Tight turning

For tractors: Four-wheel steering lets tractors turn nearly as tight as zero-turn machines. But more two-wheel-steer models can turn more tightly than earlier models.

High-back seat


For tractors: We found a high back more supportive and comfortable than a conventional seat.

Hour meter

For tractors: This meter indicates how long the engine has run since the last oil change or other maintenance.

Safety switch for reverse


For tractors: This feature helps to prevent mishaps. You must engage the switch before mowing in reverse. Now standard on most models.

Translucent fuel tank or a fuel gauge

For tractors: No more guessing. You can tell at a glance when fuel is running low.

Power steering

For tractors: Several models now offer this car-like feature. But you'll typically pay a premium for power-assist steering. And conventional-steer tractors haven't required serious effort in our tests.

Brands


Compare lawn mowers and tractors by brand before making your purchase. Most of the brand names below are familiar and show up frequently in our Ratings.

Black & Decker

Black & Decker is the leading manufacturer and marketer of corded electric and electric rechargeable mowers. Black & Decker mowers are available in only sub-20-inch cutting widths and in mulching and rear-bag configurations. Black & Decker mowers are widely available online and through Home Depot, Lowe's, and Wal-Mart.

Briggs & Stratton

Briggs & Stratton, one of the top engine makers, has moved into marketing mowers, tractors, and zero-turn riders by acquiring Snapper and Simplicity and introducing mowers and tractors under the Briggs & Stratton name. Although new to the market, the Briggs & Stratton lines appear to be aimed at the value segment at retail. Snapper and Simplicity are dealer brands and are premium-priced compared to products found in most home centers and Sears.

Craftsman

Craftsman is one of the market leaders in lawn mower and tractor sales. Most of the models in the Craftsman line are made by Husqvarna. Craftsman lawn tractors run the price spectrum from gear-drive models priced at about $1,000 to fully-featured hydrostatic drive units that cost more than $2,000. Most Craftsman lawn tractors feature Briggs & Stratton engines, and the 42-inch-deck models are among the most popular. The majority of Craftsman lawn mowers are gas powered, but the company offers a corded electric and an electric rechargeable model. Most models feature either a Honda or Briggs & Stratton engine and have side-discharge, rear-bag, and mulching modes. Craftsman also markets a line of garden tractors and zero-turn riders. Craftsman products are sold at Sears, Kmart, and online at Sears.com.

Honda

Honda is a prominent engine maker and sells a premium line of lawn mowers. Honda lawn mowers are known for innovative features and come at premium prices. Honda makes gas-powered lawn mowers with unique drive systems, mulch control, and steel and plastic decks. Honda does not make electric mowers. Honda mowers are among the most expensive on the market. Honda mowers are sold through dealers and Home Depot.

Husqvarna

Husqvarna makes mowers, tractors, and zero turn riders for the consumer and the commercial market. Husqvarna has a large dealer base, and Sears and Lowe's carry the brand. Husqvarna lawn tractors are fully featured and have deck widths in the popular 42- to 54-inch range. Most models have hydrostatic-drive systems and Briggs & Stratton engines.

John Deere

John Deere makes and markets one of the best-selling lines of lawn tractors at retail. John Deere lawn tractors are fully featured and have deck widths from 42 to 54 inches. Most models have hydrostatic drive and Briggs & Stratton engines. John Deere lawn tractors are sold at dealers, Home Depot, and Lowe's. The company markets a small line of three very similar lawn mowers through dealers and at Lowe's. Those mowers are also available in a California-emissions version. All models feature rear-wheel drive, a 21-inch, and a Briggs & Stratton engine and are priced from $400. John Deere also markets a line of garden tractors and zero-turn riders.

MTD

MTD markets lawn mowers and lawn tractors under the Yard Man, Yard Machine, Troy-Bilt, Cub Cadet, and Husky brand names. MTD products are sold through a broad array of retailers, including Sears, Tractor Supply, Lowe's, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart. MTD-made lawn tractors feature Briggs & Stratton and Kohler engines and deck widths in the popular 42- to 54-inch range. Yard Man and Yard Machines are value-priced lawn tractor lines, while Troy-Bilt, Cub Cadet, and Husky run up the price spectrum with fully-featured hydrostatic-drive units. MTD primarily markets gas powered lawn mowers but has recently introduced corded electric and electric rechargeable models. MTD-made lawn mowers are competitively priced models ranging from push mowers to self-propelled units. MTD also markets a line of garden tractors and zero turn riders.

Simplicity

Briggs & Stratton, one of the top engine makers, has moved into marketing mowers, tractors, and zero-turn riders by acquiring Snapper and Simplicity and introducing mowers and tractors under the Briggs & Stratton name. Although new to the market, the Briggs & Stratton lines appear to be aimed at the value segment at retail. Snapper and Simplicity are dealer brands and are premium-priced compared to products found in most home centers and Sears.

Snapper

Briggs & Stratton, one of the top engine makers, has moved into marketing mowers, tractors, and zero-turn riders by acquiring Snapper and Simplicity and introducing mowers and tractors under the Briggs & Stratton name. Although new to the market, the Briggs & Stratton lines appear to be aimed at the value segment at retail. Snapper and Simplicity are dealer brands and are premium-priced compared to products found in most home centers and Sears.

Toro

Toro makes and markets lawn mowers and zero-turn riders under the Toro and Lawn Boy names. The Toro and Lawn Boy brands are considered premium. Most Toro and Lawn Boy lawn mowers are self-propelled, fully featured, and have Briggs & Stratton and Honda engines. Some models in the line comply with California emissions. Toro and Lawn Boy mowers are sold through dealers and at Home Depot. Toro also markets a line of lawn tractors made by MTD.

   

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