Choosing a Riding Mower or Lawn Tractor
With a sprawling yard, the weekly lawn-mowing chore can be a time-consuming drag. A budget-priced riding mower or lawn tractor can make the task easier, faster, and perhaps even fun. These machines are far more expensive than push lawn mowers, but if the lawn is larger than about one-third of an acre, a conventional walk-behind mower probably isn't going to cut it (pardon the pun). Cheapism.com read through scores of user and expert reviews to find riding mowers priced at $1,500 or less that incorporate useful features, deliver on performance, and prove their value to frugal consumers with yards up to 2 acres.
Brands.A few large players, including John Deere, Craftsman, Husqvarna, Ariens, Troy-Bilt, Toro, and Poulan Pro, dominate the market. Some manufacturers produce and market mowers under several brand names. Yard Machines and Bolens, for example, are owned by MTD, and Poulan Pro is made by Husqvarna. Because of such sibling relationships, differences between models may be minimal, although prices may differ noticeably. For example, Poulan Pro mowers are significantly cheaper than similar Husqvarnas.
Big-box retailers such as Home Depot, Lowe's, and Sears sell cheap riding mowers and lawn tractors, and many models are available online through the usual ecommerce venues and specialty retailers. Some brands are carried almost exclusively by dealers.
Riding Lawn Mowers.The terms "riding mower" and "lawn tractor" are often used interchangeably, but the primary distinction concerns the placement of the engine: under or behind the seat in a riding mower and mounted in front of the seat in a lawn tractor.
Riding mowers perform best on flat yards of 1 acre or less. Their engines are peppy enough -- 10 to 14 horsepower is common on lower-priced models -- but they don't have the strength or build to do any real hauling or pull any but the lightest attachments. The compact design lets them navigate tight spaces and fit easily in a garage or shed.
Prices start at about $1,000. The best cheap riding mower we found is the Troy-Bilt TB30 R (starting at $999). While we like some Poulan Pro machines, one entry-level riding mower that reviewers consider less proficient -- especially on inclines, however slight -- and less reliable than our top choice is the Poulan Pro PB301 (starting at $949).
Lawn Tractors.Brawnier than traditional riding mowers, lawn tractors are geared for yards of 1 to 2 acres with uneven terrain. They're heavier than riding mowers, which helps with traction, and the front-mounted engines are more powerful, with horsepower ranging between 17 and 26 hp. Many sport automatic transmissions, as opposed to the manual shift on a riding mower, which keeps them moving at a steady clip and makes for easier maneuvering around obstacles.
This class of riding mower starts at about $1,200. Our pick for best cheap lawn tractor is the Cub Cadet XT1 Enduro Series LT42 (starting at $1,499), which hits all the right performance metrics. Our second-tier picks are the John Deere D105(starting at $1,499) and Poulan Pro PP19A42 (starting at $1,199), which are both well-liked by users but draw a few more barbs for operational irritants.
Note: Residents of California must buy lawn mowers that comply with standards set by the California Air Resources Board. With the exception of the John Deere D105, our top picks come in versions that are CARB-compliant.
Expensive vs. Cheap Riding Mowers.It's important to choose a riding mower or lawn tractor that suits the property and the operator. Budget riding mowers and lawn tractors are meant to mow grass, not tow heavy equipment, although most lawn tractors can pull a small cart, snow thrower, sprayer, or the like. The least expensive models do well on flat or gently rolling lawns that are relatively free of landscaping obstacles like trees, bushes, bird baths, etc. They have few frills and less power than pricier models. With only a few exceptions, they run on a one-cylinder engine that makes lots of noise. Most, if not all, discharge grass clippings out the side; bagging and mulching usually require accessories that can cost several hundred dollars, depending on the make and model. Finding parts and/or service may be a challenge (you can't just load the mower into the trunk to bring to a repair shop), and longevity may be limited to a couple hundred hours of use. Our research found, however, that consumers are quite satisfied with our top picks, despite minor shortcomings.
Upscale models, notably lawn tractors, run on twin-cylinder engines that produce more horsepower, run quieter, vibrate less, and tend to last longer. They boast more advanced engineering, better build quality, and more features (e.g., large fuel tank, four-wheel steering, longer warranty). Many are designed with professional landscapers in mind and for heavy-duty work around expansive properties.
Zero-turn-radius riding mowers, like the Toro TimeCutter SS4225 (starting at $2,499), feature rear-mounted engines and start at about $2,200. They sport individually controlled rear wheels (one can spin forward as the other spins backward) that enable the machine to turn 360 degrees "on a dime." They are very easy to maneuver and can reduce mowing time, but versatility is not their strong suit. Like cheaper riding mowers and lawn tractors, ZTR mowers are challenged by hills and aren't designed to haul heavy attachments. They're also costly to repair.
Garden tractors are best for hilly yards of several acres. Prices for this class of riding mower start at about $2,500. They feature massive cutting decks (up to 56 inches), heavy frames, very powerful engines (in the 20- to 26-horsepower range), and large gas tanks. They're more fuel-efficient than regular lawn tractors, provide better traction, and can haul logs and ground-engaging equipment such as plows and tillers.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Riding Mower Reviews: What We Considered
Experts at Popular Mechanics, Consumer Reports, and elsewhere primarily test models with prices exceed our maximum. Instead, we turned to consumer reviews posted at Home Depot, Lowe's, Amazon, Mowers Direct, and company sites to find front- and rear-engine riding mowers that stand out for value, with a high performance-to-price ratio. Reviews reveal that frugal shoppers seem to accept that buying an inexpensive riding mower or lawn tractor means giving up on perfection and possibly extended longevity. Still, the consensus holds that the best cheap models do a commendable job cutting grass on moderate-size expanses of lawn that are unmarred by too many boulders, stumps, and hills.
Mowing Performance.Reviews at this end of the market are fairly consistent -- in the neighborhood of 4 stars out of 5 for the models on our list, with users typically posting assessments that lack specificity and vary little from one mower to another. For the most part, users are satisfied with the way their lawns turn out after mowing. The bulk of reviews say the cut is level, the edges are clean, and clippings discharge without clumping. Users also report these mowers travel up and down small inclines with relative ease and start up without balking. Barring any mechanical or handling problems, mowing the grass takes less than half the time spent with a walk-behind mower.
Still, the models we researched are the targets of some sniping about minor things, and similar comments ripple across reviews for the entire group. Skidding on wet grass, especially on slopes, is one common criticism. Others include vibrations while mowing and rough or jumpy starts. We came across relatively more grousing about the performance of the rear-engine Poulan Pro PB301 than other entry-level mowers, with users carping about wheels that spin out on all but the very flattest of yards and uneven cuts on slightly bumpy terrain.
Transmission.Consumers should assess their comfort level with a manual clutch versus automatic transmission before purchase. Some inexpensive riding mowers and lawn tractors, including the Troy-Bilt TB30 R and Poulan Pro PB301, feature transmissions that require manually shifting from one pre-set speed to another. On even terrain, the mower maintains a steady speed. Both models feature "on-the-go" shifting, which lets the operator change speeds while in motion.
Mowers with automatic or hydrostatic transmissions perform much like a car, enabling a continuum of speeds up to the maximum. Operators have more control and can execute turns and maneuver around obstacles more easily than with a manual transmission. A hydrostatic transmission, like that found on the Cub Cadet XT1 LT42, works with fluid instead of belts and provides the smoothest ride. On the other hand, this type of transmission eats up more fuel and requires fastidious maintenance. Some fans of the John Deere D105 assert that the automatic transmission outperforms a hydrostatic transmission on sloped ground.
Ease of Use.Experts suggest test driving a riding mower for the same reason people test drive a car. If you're going to be sitting on the machine for a while, the ride should feel smooth, the seat should feel comfortable, and the reach to the steering wheel, pedals, and controls should fit your body. All the models we researched garner support from men and women of all ages and body types about getting the job done without breaking a sweat. More specifically, the Cub Cadet XT1 LT42 wins accolades for the high-back seat and easy-to-replace oil filter. Operators of the John Deere D105 cheer the absence of jerky starts and stops.
These machines are not without their flaws, however. Several owners of the rear-engine Troy-Bilt TB30 R caution that the location of the shift lever between their knees gets in the way when climbing on and off. The two pedals on the Poulan Pro PP19A42 -- one for forward and one for reverse -- are too close together for the feet of some reviewers. And with its high center of gravity, some reviews of the Poulan Pro PB301 stay it feels a bit unbalanced and is hard to steer.
Speed.Forget about setting a speed record driving around the lawn. The fastest mower we researched, the Toro TimeCutter SS4225, hits a maximum speed of 7 mph. That said, Consumer Reports' expert testers recommend mowing at 3.5 to 4 mph to avoid creating clumps of grass and reduce wear and tear. With the exception of the Troy-Bilt TB30 R, which maxes out at 4.25 miles an hour, our top picks hit a top speed of at least 5 miles an hour. All travel in reverse at lower speeds -- a practical feature where sections of the lawn are too narrow for turning. Models like the rear-engine Troy-Bilt TB30R and Poulan Pro PP19A42 also mow in reverse.
Cutting Features.Lawn tractors generally feature two cutting blades while riding mowers usually have one. Grass-cutting heights vary between 1 and 4.5 inches, depending on the model. One difference between mowers is the number of cutting heights -- as few as four on the Poulan Pro PB301 and as many as 13 on the John Deere D105.
Anti-scalping wheels (or rollers) placed under the deck of a front-engine lawn tractor help produce an even cut on uneven terrain. They create a cushion between the cutting deck and the ground, protecting both lawn and mower. Two deck wheels are the norm for front-engine riding mowers in this price range, although the Cub Cadet XT1 LT42 features four.
The width of the cutting deck affects the number of passes needed to mow the grass. The deck is comparatively small on rear-engine riding mowers, often 30 inches or so; both of the rear-engine models discussed in this buying guide feature 30-inch decks. On a lawn tractor, the cutting deck is significantly wider: 42 or 46 inches is common.
Turning Radius.The turning radius is the minimum size U-turn a riding mower can make. A tighter radius makes it easier to maneuver and leaves less grass uncut as the mower turns to travel in the opposite direction. A typical turning radius for a riding mower or lawn tractor is 16 or 18 inches -- the latter drawing a few complaints from users of the Troy-Bilt TB30 R for being too wide. One compelling feature of the Poulan Pro PB301 is a snug 14-inch turning radius.
The Toro TimeCutter SS4225 beats them all with its zero turn radius. Tight cornering and coming in close to fencing and mid-yard obstacles make mowing fast, easy, and fun, users report. This particular ZTR mower has its quirks -- it's designed for flat yards, and some users attest it struggles to maintain contact with the ground when confronted with bumps -- but few, if any, regret shelling out extra for this pricier technology.
Durability and Maintenance.Cheap riding mowers and lawn tractors usually come with a minimal two-year limited warranty. The Cub Cadet XT1 LT42 outshines them all with coverage for its various parts that ranges from 3 years to a lifetime. These warranties may come in handy, as most of the models we researched were panned in at least some reviews for a range of minor, and some major, problems such as engines that continually stop midstream and electric starter batteries that conk out quickly and must be replaced.
All riding lawn mowers need maintenance, be it replacing worn-out belts, sharpening blades, or cleaning the deck after each use. Washout ports on the John Deere D105 and Cub Cadet XT1 LT42 garner cheers from users for making it easy to remove grass clippings -- just attach a hose and spray. Servicing the unit regularly in accordance with the owner's manual helps the machine last longer. Before buying a mower, make sure replacement parts are readily available, either online or at a nearby retailer.