Zero-turn mowers rival tractors for snob appeal

Consumer Reports News: June 19, 2007 02:17 PM

If one-upmanship weren’t a national pastime, fewer Americans would lust after 1,000-horsepower sports cars, 103-inch plasma TVs, and mowers designed at least in part to make the neighbors feel a little less significant.

Riding mowers are the biggest and priciest mowers by far. Front-engine lawn tractors from Craftsman, John Deere, and other big brands still make up most of this wide-cutting slice of the mower market.

But rear-engine, zero-turn-radius mowers—known as ZTRs by the cognoscenti—are challenging that turf. Independently controlled rear-steering wheels let these landscaper-inspired machines spin tight circles for trimming around trees, posts, and other obstacles. And some models can cut a 60-inch swath. Those features and lower prices (about $3,000 versus $4,000 to $9,000-plus for pro versions) have helped ZTRs grow to more than 10 percent of the nearly 2 million consumer mowers that are shipped annually in this country. (The Cub Cadet RZT 54 is shown.)

But as we found in our recent mowers and tractors roundup, using a ZTR’s lever steering smoothly and precisely takes practice. Front casters can make straight tracking on hills challenging, while the rear-steering wheels frequently tear up turf on turns.

If you value better mowing over trendy products, take heart: Several lawn tractors outperformed the best ZTR we tested, including two from John Deere and Craftsman that cost about $1,600.

Another option if you have a big lawn studded with obstacles: Lawn tractors that combine the tight turns of a ZTR with a familiar steering wheel. Two we tested include the $3,500 John Deere X304 and $3,400 Cub Cadet i1046. The top-scoring Deere provides more-even mowing, better mulching, and much better side-discharging (a bagging kit will add $300 to $900 to the price of these machines). The Cub Cadet offers zero-turn capability with much better hill stability and won’t tear up grass as lever-steer models do.

If you have a smaller lawn or want to spend less, consider an electric mower. In our tests, many plug-in electrics delivered fine mowing with less noise, less maintenance, and zero exhaust emissions for about $300. Several gas-powered models mowed even better, if more noisily, for as little as $230 for push mowers and $270 for self-propelled versions. And all gas-powered mowers run more cleanly and efficiently than they did only a few years ago

The bottom line: Decide on a push or self-propelled mower, a lawn tractor, or a zero-turn-radius model based on the size of your lawn and the terrain. Check our Ratings for push mowersself-propelled mowers, and tractors (Ratings are available to subscribers) for the models that did best in the mowing mode you use most.

Mow safely and mow regularly (at least once a week in most regions) so you don’t harm the grass by slicing off too much of it at a time (no more than a third of its height). And see “How to fix the top 10 lawn problems” for expert advice on how to get a great-looking lawn.Bob Markovich

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