Comparison tests rank self-propelled Honda and Toro lawn mowers at the top, but the J.D. Power & Associates survey of owners gives Honda a decisive edge. Neither brand is immune to complaints or repair problems, but we found that owner reviews also give Honda the overall lead. Honda's OHV engines and fuel systems have met California's emissions standards for several years -- well in advance of state and 2012 federal requirements -- on all Honda lawn mowers, nationwide. Toro makes lower-emission lawn mower models for sale in California, but despite the 2012 federal requirements, it can still be difficult to buy them in other states.
The 21-inch Honda HRX217HYA (*Est. $700) features a smooth, durable hydrostatic transmission with cruise control and with speeds up to 4 miles per hour. This is the 2012 successor, adding an automatic choke, to the Honda model that has consistently topped the charts in comparison tests. Like its predecessor, this mower provides single-lever adjustment that varies the clippings-discharge mode to any point between full mulching and full bagging, so you can choose to bag just part of the clippings. Both professional and owner reviews say this system works extremely well. A blade brake clutch lets you stop the Honda lawn mower blades without stopping the engine. This is a desirable convenience when you're moving things out of the way or emptying the bag, and it also helps prolong engine life.
The Honda GCV190 OHC/OHV residential engine earns top marks for quiet, durability and fuel-efficiency. The Honda HRX series mower deck, made of a durable, rustproof polymer, carries a limited lifetime warranty, while the rest of the lawn mower is warranted for five years. The recoil starter gets good reviews, but if you prefer an electric start, it's available on the Honda HRX217HZA (*Est. $850).
There are two main drawbacks to the Honda HRX series lawn mowers. Adjusting the cutting height requires using a lever on each of the four wheels. Also, the handle, though adjustable in length, is still too long for some users. Keep in mind, too, that even a top-rated mower brand can need repairs -- so be sure an authorized service provider is nearby.
The 21-inch Honda HRR216VKA (*Est. $400) doesn't quite measure up to the more costly Honda HRX series mowers, but reviews say it's still a good value. Comparison tests show that the HRR216VKA doesn't cut quite as evenly as the more expensive Honda HRX series mowers. The transmission is variable speed, but not hydrostatic -- no cruise control. The deck is steel rather than a polymer, so it can eventually rust, and the warranty on the mower as a whole is for three years.
However, tests show that the twin-bladed Honda HRR216VKA excels at both mulching and bagging clippings, and it performs well in side-discharge mode as well. More than 350 owners reviewing this mower at HomeDepot.com make it one of the top-rated lawn mowers there. The 82-pound weight (85 pounds with a tank of gasoline) makes this mower relatively easy to push around. The similar Honda HRR216VYA (*Est. $500) adds a blade brake override, but it is heavier at 97 pounds, without gas.
Toro lawn mowers are Honda's main competitors in this price range, and most reviewers say the Toro Personal Pace drive system is easy to use: It automatically adjusts the mower's pace to that of the user. Toro offers a three-year warranty that says that the mower is "guaranteed to start." As a brand, though, Toro doesn't rank as well as Honda for either performance or durability in J. D. Power and Associates customer surveys. Another consideration is that most Toro mowers use fuel systems and engines that pollute more than Honda mowers; CARB-certified Toro models are still hard to find outside California.
Tests show the 22-inch Toro Recycler 20333 (*Est. $400) doesn't bag clippings as well as the comparably priced Honda HRR216VKA -- probably because the Honda mower uses a twin blade while the Toro lawn mower has a single one. Otherwise, the Toro Recycler 2033 performs well. Even at this budget price, the Toro mower has a blade brake override for both convenience and longer engine life -- a big plus. This mower gets reasonably positive reviews from most owners rating it at HomeDepot.com, but about 25 percent say they wouldn't recommend it to a friend.
The similar, less expensive Toro Recycler 20332 (*Est. $350) lacks the blade brake override and earns more modest praise from owners reviewing it at HomeDepot.com. About 30 percent of the reviewers there say they would not recommend this mower to a friend; complaints range from durability issues to problems in mulching and bagging mode. Still, this budget mower earns high marks at Popular Mechanics for value, and it gets mostly positive reviews from owners. The choice between a Honda and Toro budget mower may come down to which has more convenient servicing options in your area.