Choosing a Top-Loading Washing Machine
Frugal consumers choose top-loading washing machines over front-loading washers for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is cost. Entry-level units -- even high-efficiency or HE washers -- run about $300 less than comparable front-loaders. Other advantages of top-loaders vs. front-loading washing machines include the ability to add washables after a cycle has been started, less vibration, and avoidance of stinky mildew, which plagues many front-loaders.
Brands that manufacture budget-friendly versions of these household appliances include Whirlpool, Maytag, Amana, Hotpoint, Kenmore, Roper, and GE. But don't pay too much attention to the labels -- Whirlpool owns Maytag, Amana, and Roper, while GE owns Hotpoint. Whirlpool also makes most Kenmore top-loading washers. We cycled through expert and user reviews of dozens of models from all the brands above to identify the best top-loading washers for less than $500.
We settled on three top picks. The roomy Maytag MVWC565FW (starting at $449) and Whirlpool Cabrio WTW5000DW (starting at $480) earn plaudits from consumers and experts for overall performance. The GE GTW330ASKWW (starting at $449) is a smaller and more efficient model that reviewers appreciate for its old-school simplicity.
A slight step down in our rankings are the Amana NTW4516FW (starting at $300), which scores well for durability and value, especially for smaller households; the efficient and slightly larger Hotpoint HTW200ASKWW (starting at $329); and the Maytag MVWC416FW (starting at $494) which, although a bit on the pricey side, is praised for speed and effectiveness.
One cheap washer we don't recommend is the Kenmore 25132 (starting at $450). This model is subject to frequent owner complaints claiming it takes entirely too long to do a fairly ineffective job.
Editor's Note: Listed prices were accurate at the time of writing in early May 2017, but prices in this category are particularly fluid. Washers are subject to frequent sales and we often see prices fluctuate from one week to the next, sometimes by as much as $100. Waiting to make a purchase may sometimes be a wise choice.
Best-Rated Washing Machines.Two other appliance giants, Samsung and LG, take top prizes in this segment for overall customer satisfaction, according to a 2016 survey by J.D. Power, but unfortunately not many machines from these manufacturers fall under the $500 mark unless they've been deeply discounted. For example, the cheapest Samsung washing machine, the Samsung WA40J3000AW (starting at $495), barely skirts our cutoff, even as it faces durability and potential safety issues, according to reviews. That said, consumers willing to make a bit of a splurge can gain loads of extra room and some serious energy savings with the 4.9-cubic-foot, Energy Star-qualified LG WT5270CW (starting at $719).
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Top-Loading Washing Machine Reviews: What We Considered
Evaluating cheap top-loading washing machines can be tricky. To begin, we examined the results of comparative, systematic washing-machine tests by Consumer Reports, Reviewed.com, and CNET. We also looked closely at consumer feedback, as expert tests may not reflect users' expectations or day-to-day use and abuse. In several cases, washers receive lackluster reviews from experts while users are overwhelmingly pleased. On the other hand, sometimes models that perform well in expert testing don't generate high praise from buyers. As a result, user reviews on retailer sites proved indispensable. But, as with many appliances, washing machines are often discontinued relatively quickly, meaning older models that have amassed a lot of reviews may not be widely available.
Another factor that makes it difficult to differentiate among cheap washing machines is a lack of extra features in this price range. While pricier models are more likely to have automatic detergent or bleach dispensers, steam settings, custom wash cycles, automatic temperature control, delay-wash timers, and other bells and whistles, these extras are rare in the under-$500 segment. Fortunately, we were able to find enough reliable feedback from our various sources to zero in on several key features that users look for in any washer and determine some standout washing machines under $500 that seem to fill the bill fairly reliably.
Consumers are particularly satisfied with top-loading washers they consider sufficiently large, durable, quiet, effective, and gentle. And while many reviewers praise today's models for their increased efficiency, others say lower utility bills have come at the cost of clothes that just don't get as clean -- a complaint levied against every washing machine we researched.
Capacity.Cheap top-loaders usually feature between 3 and 4 cubic feet of space and can accommodate 12 to 16 pounds of washables. Smaller, portable washers are available, but we focused on models with at least 3.5 cubic feet. That's enough capacity for a smaller household, or a larger one willing to do laundry more frequently.
The general recommendation is to purchase the largest washer that your space and budget will accommodate. While it may seem counterintuitive, larger models can actually save rather than waste energy and water, because the more laundry per load, the fewer washes are needed. Large-capacity machines also handle oversize items, like comforters, more easily.
Two of our favorite washers, the Maytag MVWC565FW and the Whirlpool Cabrio WTW5000DW, are relatively roomy for budget models, with 4.2 and 4.3 cubic feet of space, respectively. The Whirlpool is the only washer on our list of top picks without an agitator, providing more space than traditional top-loaders for bulky washables. If the above models aren't spacious enough, the solution is to pay a little more and upgrade to a model like the oversize LG WT5270CW. Take care, though -- large-capacity washers are meant for large loads, all the time. Reviews at Home Depot.com caution that the “mega capacity” LG WT5270CW may be thrown off balance when washing only a few items.
At the other end of the size spectrum, two of our picks, the Amana NTW4516FW and the Maytag MVWC416FW, offer a more modest 3.5 and 3.6 cubic feet of space, respectively. While it might be harder to stuff a king-size quilt in these models, owners say they are the right size for smaller households.
Efficiency.Many high-efficiency or HE washing machines are designed to sense laundry load size, dispensing only enough water to clean the clothes in the washer, rather than filling the drum completely. Some reviewers really like this feature; others detest it. Those on the pro side appreciate the savings on water bills and say washables get clean despite the reduced amount of water. Those opposed say it takes more water than is meted out to properly remove dirt from clothes.
Too little water is one of the chief shortcomings of the Kenmore 25132, according to several reviews posted at Sears.com. Many washers, including this Kenmore, have deep-water cycles that fill the drum to the max and can be used on heavily soiled loads, but this feature receives mixed feedback from reviewers. Also, HE machines require HE (low-sudsing) detergent to achieve optimal results. Using the wrong detergent can actually require additional rinse cycles and increase water usage.
Consumers who prefer to select the water level from the get-go can look to the GE GTW330ASKWW or the Hotpoint HTW200ASKWW. These are the only two washers we researched that don't automatically sense load size and add water accordingly, and they are not listed as HE models.
If a washing machine is also Energy Star certified, rebates may be available. High efficiency, however, doesn't automatically translate to Energy Star certification. To qualify, a washing machine must use 25 percent less energy than its non-compliant counterparts. Additionally, Energy Star washers use about 45 percent less water than standard washers, which translates to about 3,000 fewer gallons a year.
None of the top-loaders we recommend in the Cheapism price range is Energy Star-certified. If that feature is a priority, look to the slightly pricier GE GTW485ASJWS (starting at $584), a 4.2-cubic-foot model that's quite similar to our top pick, the Maytag MVWC565FW, and provides a wealth of wash cycles in addition to qualifying for the Energy Star seal. The LG WT5270CW is another quality choice that consumes a remarkably low 113 kilowatt hours a year, but of course it sits outside the Cheapism range. Something else to keep in mind: The LG model and most other Energy Star-qualified machines lack an agitator; the GE GTW485ASJWS is an exception. (More on the pros and cons of agitators below.)
Among our top picks, the GE GTW330ASKWW (187 kWh/year) and the Hotpoint HTW200ASKWW (184 kWh/year) use the least energy, according to the government-mandated EnergyGuide labels affixed to their sides -- although, again, neither is an HE model (they have higher water-consumption rates) and both have agitators. Ironically, the agitator-free, HE Whirlpool Cabrio WTW5000DW is one of the bigger energy hogs, draining a whopping 300 kWh/year.
Gentleness.Front-loaders are generally the easiest on clothes, according to Consumer Reports. Of course, that doesn't mean all top-loading washers will rip a hole in a favorite dress shirt. Reviewers give cheap washers mixed reviews on this front, but it's worth noting that some users don't necessarily expect or even want a very gentle machine at this price. Many are drawn to cheaper models with agitators because they seem to power through stains more effectively, with the trade-off being a slightly rougher cycle.
Among our picks with traditional agitators, reviewers cite the GE GTW330ASKWW and Amana NTW4516FW for their soft touch. One user happily writes of clothes emerging from the GE model free of wrinkles, and a post on the Amana website simply describes the NTW4516FW as smooth. On the flip side, the Hotpoint HTW200ASKWW and GE GTW485ASJWS can be a bit rough. Experts at Reviewed.com say the degree of wear and tear on clothing washed in the GE GTW485ASJWS depends on the cycle used. A CNET reviewer agrees that the machine can be tough on clothes, but adds that it also proved tougher on stains than some other GE models tested that lacked agitators.
Washing machines without agitators eschew a spindle in favor of a spinning, disc-like impeller fitted into the bottom of the washer drum. They rely on longer wash times, higher speeds, and more powerful water currents to lift dirt from fabric, as opposed to the old-school “thwack” and “whap” cleaning methods of traditional models. Indeed, the only agitator-free model we recommend, the Whirlpool Cabrio WTW5000DW, notches very good marks for this less abrasive cleaning technique. On HomeDepot.com, reviewers say they have no problem washing more delicate items in the Cabrio, and many say their clothes don't get knotted as often as they did in older machines.
On the other hand, the Kenmore 25132, proves a little rougher than buyers might expect from an agitator-free model, according to CNET testers. Several users reviewing the Kenmore model on Sears.com say the machine leaves clothes a tangled mess, and some report finding holes.
Noise/Vibration.No washer is completely silent, but noise remains a major concern for some buyers -- especially those who must position the unit close to a living space or bedroom. Whether one particular washing machine is excessively noisy compared with others is a pretty subjective call, since most consumers aren't comparing two washers side by side. To avoid too many conflicting opinions on noise, we looked for washing machines that were included in expert tests.
Results indicate that higher-end top-loaders, most without an agitator, are more likely to keep noise to a minimum. Logically, this suggests that cheaper models, including our picks, don't perform as well on the noise front. In fact, the only machines on our list that earn better than ho-hum marks from experts when it comes to noise are the more expensive LG WT5270CW and the Maytag MVWC565FW (which does have an agitator). Even there, the noise ratings aren't glowing, and we saw several user reviews at HomeDepot.com that complain the Maytag model is too loud.
Fortunately, it's a completely different story when it comes to vibration. Experts say today's top-loaders are less likely than faster-spinning front-loaders to vibrate excessively.
Durability.Major washing machine manufacturers tell experts that washers should last about 10 years with normal residential usage. But even if a washer does last a decade or more, it might require a repair or two. Common fixes such as lid-switch failures or issues with the water inlet valve can cost around $150 or more, Angie's List estimates.
In general, buyers are not enamored with the dependability of cheaper top-loaders. Although most reviewers report trouble-free use, no model we researched was immune to complaints about repairs, which are sometimes needed soon after purchase. Problems frequently involve the sensors and other complexities embedded in the newest washers -- with more sophisticated machines, there's more that can go wrong.