While we’re enamored of the older reviews lawn and Lawn Tractors —we haven’t seen an update in over two years. What’s more, Consumer Reports has really stepped up its coverage, no longer focusing only on the cheaper models on the market. This time, editors cover a nice range of products and include a good buyer’s guide.
We also compared and contrasted the findings of these two major review sources with lesser contributors, like National Gardening and GardenWeb, to come up with the best tractors for clipping and mulching your large lawn into shape. We thought we’d found a good source at Bob Vila.com. But Vila, of This Old House fame, seems to have merely become a marketing entity—his “Smart Buys” are no more than large portions of the Sears home page with Vila’s name at the top.
Well-known manufacturer Murray continues to be plagued with recalls. Last year, we reported on a March 2003 recall which involved fuel leaks caused by cracked gas tanks. Fortunately, no injuries were reported. Now exactly a year later, in March 2004, more Murray riding and walk-behind mowers have been recalled. The Consumer Products Safety Commission reports that some plastic parts can crack when hit by objects ejected by the blade. No injuries have been reported to date. The 8,000-model recalls involves too many model numbers to list here, but you can check with the CPSC (www.cpsc.gov) for more information, or contact Murray at 800-876-1634.
- Air induction technology.
- Fast auto transmission feature.
- Tractor’s front headlights are a little bit weak and they don’t light up so much.
Murray isn’t alone, though. Toro issued a recall in August 2002 for fuel-line hoses which were too long and could be accidentally cut by moving tractor parts. In July 2003, it was Toro zero-turn models, including the Time Cutter 2 series. According to the manufacturer and the CPSC, an actuator arm could fail, resulting in loss of control over the transmission. One injury was reported in association with the recall. Call Toro at 800-525-0059 to arrange for a free repair.
If you’re thinking of upgrading from a walk-behind mower to a riding mower, be prepared for some sticker shock—while you can get a top-performing self-propelled walk-behind mower for around, residential riding mowers and tractors start at about and top out well into the range. For the price, of course, you get to sit on the job, but riding mowers also have much wider cutting decks—twice the width of walk-behinds. They also have double or triple the horsepower, further reducing cutting time. Many tractors can accept attachments like front blades, snow throwers or tillers, increasing their year-round functionality. If you have a yard of 3/4 acre or more, a lawn tractor is your best (if pricey) option.
Riding mowers come in a variety of flavors, and the lines of demarcation are not very clear—we saw the same model referred to as a “riding mower” in one article, a “lawn tractor” in another, and a “garden tractor” in still another write-up. In general, riding mowers are at the low end of the spectrum; their 8 to 15hp motors are situated in back, they have steering wheels up front, and are dedicated mowers. Riding mowers usually have a cutting deck of 13 to 30 inches wide.
Reviewers aren’t very excited about traditional riding lawn mowers; most say you get more for your money with a tractor. Plus, all the product innovations these days are happening on top-of-the-line mowers, attracting most of the attention from reviewers. Still, if you have limited storage space and don’t have an enormous lawn, and you don’t need to convert your lawn mower into a tiller or snow plow, a conventional riding mower may be all you need.
The 9hp Yard-Man by MTD Yard Bug is mentioned by two reviewers in our last report. MTD, however, isn’t making the Yard Bug anymore. Instead, they’ve given it a new paint job and are now marketing it under the White name (the LR927, ) as well as manufacturing a near-identical 10hp model for Sears (the Craftsman 13A-344-099,). Both models come with a collection bag and mulching attachments, which are extra cost items on tractors.
We didn’t see either of these models included in any recent formal reviews, but we did see some good comments from pleased homeowners on GardenWeb. Some owners say it’s an economical option for people with physical limitations, and a good choice for shorter people, who might be uncomfortable on a larger tractor. Others, however, say you might be better off paying “the kid next door” to mow the lawn. Both the White and Craftsman have a 27-inch cutting deck, a steering wheel and speed pedal. You can’t attach any accessories, like snow blades or tillers. We’ve included the Craftsman in ConsumerSearch Fast Answers, as it’s widely available at Sears. You’ll have to seek out a White dealer to check out the nearly-identical White model.
Lawn tractors are the next step up. These are oversized riding mowers with bigger cutting decks—around 45 inches—and 15 to 20hp motors. The engines are usually up-front (with the exception of ZTR models below), and they look more like small farm tractors than lawn mowers. Lawn tractors are meant mostly for mowing, but most can accept a snow-plow blade, tiller, aerator or cart. According to Popular Mechanics, this type of mower is the most popular by far.
Lawn tractors have either gear-driven or hydrostatic drives. Gear-drive models use a clutch and shift manually. Hydrostatic tractors are automatic—you don’t have to shift, and speed is controlled by a foot pedal or throttle. Consumer Reports and other reviewers say that hydrostatic models are easier to use, but cost more than gear driven models (gear-drive models start at around while hydrostatic models start at about). Still, experts agree the hydrostatic drive is worth the extra expense.
Experts cite John Deere models more than any other brand, and the entry-level John Deere L110 (*est. ) gets high scores for adept bagging, easy handling and a smooth, hydrostatic transmission. This model has a 42-inch deck (much wider than the MTD riding mower above), 17.5 horsepower engine, foot-pedal controls and a steering wheel. The L110 adjusts to seven cutting heights, down to ½ inch. Included are convenience features such as a cup holder, cruise control, headlights and an hour-monitor to tell you how much of your life has been spent sitting on a mower.
The Deere L110 side-discharges clippings, and also comes with a mulching kit. The bag kit (*est. ) comes as extra cost, as do attachments such as a 46-inch snow blade, 42-inch snow thrower, and various aerator, tiller and cart options. The L110 does mow in reverse, but you need to engage an override switch for safety (some tractors don’t mow in reverse at all).
The Troy-Bilt Bronco is another good option, according to reviewers. This model is something of a hybrid. While not quite a hydrostatic model, it does have an automatic transmission with a cruise-control feature and pedal controls. There’s an 18hp Briggs and Stratton engine and a 42-inch cutting path. This model does not cut in reverse. The mulch kit is included, and the bagger costs about. The Troy-Bilt Web site is not forthcoming about what kinds of accessories are available, but the Troy-Bilt does save you a bit of money over the John Deere.
Both the John Deere L110 and Troy-Bilt Bronco are entry-level tractors. They’ll do a fine job for most people who are just looking to get the grass cut with little fuss. But if you’re willing to spend more money, you’ll get a heavier, sturdier machine with more cutting options and generally a higher-caliber motor. The John Deere LX277 is a top pick at Popular Mechanics (just under the now-discontinued Ariens 1742). Editors say this model has few flaws, with an easy to use cutting-height adjustor and blade clutch. While the LX277 and cheaper L110 look pretty similar to the naked eye, the LX model has a heavier frame, Kawasaki engine, enclosed motor and more cutting-height options—all the way down to ¼-inch.
For mowing big lawns, the current top-of-the-line lawn tractor is the zero-turn radius mower. Most riding mowers leave behind a circle of uncut grass when they turn. This uncut circle is called the “turning radius,” and it’s expressed in inches. So a mower with an 18-inch turning radius (like the John Deere L110, above) leaves behind a 18-inch diameter patch of uncut grass when it turns the tightest possible circle. Zero-turn radius mowers are just that—they don’t leave behind any uncut grass because they use a different turning technology.
Zero-turn radius (ZTR) mowers have independently controlled hydrostatic wheels—one wheel rotates forward while the other actually reverses, making for a pivot rather than a graduated turn. It’s easy to see why lawn mavens get excited about these; there’s no need to go back and re-mow missed patches of grass, or maneuver the mower into reverse-forward, reverse-forward to cut every blade. Unlike regular lawn tractors, ZTR mowers have engines situated in the back. They are expensive, starting at about .
By all accounts, the John Deer Spin-Steer SST-16 zero-turn radius (ZTR) lawn tractor is an engineering marvel, earning praise from Popular Mechanics and National Gardening, and an industrial design award from Business Week. The Deere accomplishes turns with an easy-to-use steering wheel (rather than two levers, as on other ZTR models); and the technology behind the steering mechanism gets the most attention from reviewers. This Deere can creep around obstacles like trees and flowerbeds, and make perfect u-turns, nearly eliminating the need for trimming. This model is nearly cheaper than last year, responding to high demand.
Experts say you just can beat the Spin-Steer’s handling; while this model uses a steering wheel, other ZTR tractors use two levers, which take some getting used to. Models from Ariens, Cub Cadet and Toro don’t perform as well in mulching and discharging tests, and all have levers rather than a steering wheel. While the John Deere formerly garnered a big price premium over other models, this year’s Spin-Steer doesn’t cost any more than a lesser-performing model.
Garden tractors are larger and heavier still, and are designed to accommodate a range of attachments, from tillers to snow plow blades. Power ranges up to 30hp, and prices can reach high into the thousands. These tractors are beyond the needs of most residential uses. Consumer Reports does not cover these models, but Popular Mechanics occasionally includes a single-product write-up. You’ll need to do some further research if you need this kind of equipment.
Here’s what experts say to look for when shopping for a riding mower or lawn tractor.
Don’t buy more mower than you need. If your yard is less than ¾ acre, you can accomplish the job just as well, and more cheaply, with a walk-behind mower. Riding mowers like the Craftsman are suitable for big lawns, but may be frustratingly slow for yards over an acre. Lawn tractors offer bigger engines and snow blade attachments, but cost more.
Horsepower doesn’t tell the whole story. Experts at Popular Mechanics and Consumer Reports didn’t find much performance difference between similar horsepower engines. 15, 16 and 17hp models didn’t display much difference in power. More relevant, experts say, is whether the motor is a single or twin engine. Twin-engine models are preferable, but more expensive.
Try out the seat. Reviewers found seats on smaller models (like riding mowers) to be less comfortable. You’ll be sitting there for a while, so take the time to try it out.
Check for storage space. Riding mowers and lawn tractors take up a significant amount of garage space. Make sure you have room (or an equipment shed) for storage before you bring one home.
Riding mowers of many manufacturers have been subject to a number of recalls in conjunction with the Consumer Products Safety Commission (www.cpsc.gov). Be sure you register any new purchase, so you will receive notification in the event of a recall, and if you are buying used, it’s a good idea to consult the CPSC Web site for any recalls that may apply to your model.