Why rear-engine mowers aren’t front runners in our tests

Consumer Reports News: April 13, 2011 03:39 PM

Rear-engine riding mowers are an option for homeowners with medium-sized lawns who lack the budget or storage space for a full-sized rider or tractor. But in our latest mower tests, the mediocre performance of three rear-engine riders kept us from recommending any of them.

Lawn tractors with the engine in front now dominate the market, but that wasn’t always the case. If you’re in the market for a rider or tractor, you should know the pros and cons of the three most common types.

Rear-engine riding mowers. With their smaller engines and mowing swaths (about 30 inches), rear-engine riders are best for lawns a half acre in size or less. The three we tested ranged in price from $730 to $2,200. At those prices you can get a high-end walk-behind mower or a capable lawn tractor. Because the weight of the engine, fuel and rider is concentrated at the back of the machine, going up a hill can cause the front wheels to lose their grip, affecting steering performance.
Lawn tractors. The most common type of mower, lawn tractors mount the engine in front and typically cut a 42- to 54-inch swath. Their greater power, better front-to-back weight distribution and dual blades improve cutting and performance on large, hilly lawns. Prices range from $1,000 to $1,800; models that offer four-wheel steering for tighter turns can be had for $3,000.
Zero-turn-radius riders. Known as ZRTs, these mowers also place the engine in back and typically have twin steering levers that control the two rear wheels individually. This makes them easier to maneuver around obstacles, but like the rear-engine riders they are harder to control on steep slopes. Most cut a swath comparable to a lawn tractor, but they don’t cut as well and cost more. Prices start at $2,500.

We included three rear-engine mowers in our recent tests. As a class, they proved to be subpar at cutting grass.

Ariens AMP 916002. This battery-powered mower eliminates exhaust emissions and tune-ups, and has a 34-inch cutting deck. Mulching performance was good, but bagging was only fair and the 48-volt battery didn’t provide enough run time to mow a full acre. At $2,200, you’re better off with a lawn tractor.
The Weed Eater One 960220009. At $730, this rider might be tempting and its side-discharging performance was very good. Handling, however, was poor and it was mediocre at mulching and bagging.
Craftsman 28034. One of our lowest rated mowers, the Craftsman handled very poorly and mulching, bagging and side discharging was middling. At $1,400, it cost more than some lawn tractors that are more capable.

So what do we recommend for folks who want to ride and mow? “The $1300 Craftsman 28885 and $1600 Craftsman 28856 lawn tractors we tested come with true lawn tractor engines, 42- and 46-inch cutting decks, more comfortable seats, and are better balanced than a rear-engine rider if you need to mow up and down hills,” says Peter Sawchuk, who directs Consumer Reports’ mower testing. “Any full-sized tractor is also likely to last several years longer than a rear-engine riding mower, so you’ll enjoy better cutting performance while saving money in the long run.”

Gian Trotta

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