Mowers & tractors

Our biggest test yields 28 top picks and 10 CR Best Buys

Last reviewed: May 2010

This year you can buy a $4,000 rider that runs on batteries, a small electric model with self-propelled wheels, and some new takes on the age-old reel mower as cleaner machines gain traction. Our latest tests of 91 models—our biggest mower project ever—include good values in every category.

For instance, you could shell out $700 on the top-scoring Honda self-propelled mower and get a carpet-smooth cut. Or you could pay about half that price for the Toro Recycler 20333 and get neater results in the side-discharge mode you'll need in taller grass. And like the other gas mowers we tested, those models pollute some 60 percent less than mowers built a decade ago.

Rather ride than walk? The $1,750 John Deere LA115 lawn tractor and $1,500 LA105 gear-driven version are among several CR Best Buys for lawns of half an acre or more. They save you thousands over the priciest models (and the usual hassle of changing blades if you mulch or bag clippings).

We also tested a zero-turn-radius riding mower with a steering wheel instead of levers and some pint-sized riders that bridge the gap between smaller mowers and larger tractors. But as our weeks of mowing confirm, it's easy to get scalped at both ends of the size spectrum.

Value vs. just plain cheap

We panned Walmart's Brute mowers last year for their lackluster performance. This year the Brute BTXPV22700E, $350, made our Recommended list (available to subscribers) thanks to improved mowing and easy turn-key starting. Move up to the Craftsman 28724 tractor and you get even cutting and a wide, 46-inch cut for just $1,400. But spending less can also buy less: The low-scoring $860 Bolens tractor and $290 Troy-Bilt self-propelled mower we tested proved less than a bargain, despite their bargain-basement prices.

Fancy features at a fancy price

Paying $2,500 for Husqvarna's YTH23V42LS tractor buys you a cushy seat, an extra-thick mowing deck for added strength, and an oil cooler like the kind on Porsches and Corvettes. But six top picks offer better mowing without the high price.

Better bets for tight spots

Rear- wheel steering lets zero-turn-radius riders trim around saplings and other objects that are too narrow for most tractors. Along with a steering wheel, Cub Cadet's Z-Force S, $4,000, adds tractor-like, front-wheel steering—a feature that allows safer steering down slopes. But some tractors, including the top-scoring Craftsman Revolution, offer narrow turning for tight spots, mow better overall, and cost hundreds of dollars less.

A small rider for midsized lawns

Compact, rear-engine riders almost faded away as prices dropped for larger, wider-cutting lawn tractors. At just $700, the new 26-inch-wide Weed Eater One is priced and sized more like a walk-behind mower. Though mowing in the most-used, side-discharge mode was middling—and mulching and bagging kits weren't out in time for our test—the Weed Eater is worth considering if your lawn is less than half an acre or your storage space is limited.