Rear engine riding mowers are smaller and less powerful than lawn tractors, which place the engine up front. Just like zero-turn mowers, which also have their engine at the rear, rear engine riding mowers also tend to handle a little worse, especially on hilly terrain. However, they have one major advantage over traditional lawn tractors and zero-turn mowers -- they are substantially cheaper than most. That means that if you have less than $1,200 to spend on a riding mower, and your property is under an acre in size, a rear-engine riding mower could be just right for your needs.
We spotted the best overall feedback for the Troy-Bilt TB30R (Est. $1,000). One large independent reviewer rarely, if ever, recommends rear-engine mowers, but makes an exception in the case of this model -- though not without pointing out some flaws. On the plus side, the TB30R is an able performer when mulching or discharging clippings, but bagging performance is sub-par. Some handling issues are also noted, but the ergonomics and ease of use are good.
The TB30R is powered by a single cylinder engine -- though the maker will depend on where you buy the mower. The version reviewed above and sold exclusively at Lowes.com uses a Briggs & Stratton engine, while the version offered elsewhere uses a Troy-Bilt motor. We spotted few other significant differences, and feedback for both models is similar. That said, the Lowes version (model 13CC26JD011) sells for around $1,000, while the model 13B226JD066 that's sold by Troy-Bilt dealers and independent retailers can sometimes sell for more.
Regardless of which Troy-Bilt TB30R you opt for, keep in mind that the cutting deck is small at 30 inches. On the positive side, that makes for easier storage in a crowded garage or shed. On the negative side that means more passes are needed to cut a lawn -- and that's a major reason why this and similar small lawn tractors are only recommended for smaller properties. With its six-speed transmission, the mower can obtain a top speed of about 4.25 MPH. The cutting height can be adjusted in five steps between 1.5 and 3.5 inches. The high back seat is judged to be comfortable.
All versions of the Troy-Bilt TB30R receive good user reviews. At Lowes.com, though the feedback includes opinions originally posted at the Troy-Bilt site, the 13CC26JD011 earns a rating of 4.2 stars based on 170 reviews. At MowersDirect.com, the 13B226JD066 version scores similarly following more than 35 reviews and earns a recommendation from site product expert Jose Castellanos. Regardless of the version, between 83 percent and 86 percent of owners say they would recommend this cheap riding mower.
The Craftsman 30 in 420cc Model 29000 (Est. $1,100) is a similar rear-engine mower to consider. This very compact lawn tractor fills the same niche as the Troy-Bilt, with its narrow 30-inch cutting deck, which can fit through standard fence openings. Despite its small size, reviewers say it still has the power to cut, mulch and bag with ease. It also boasts cruise control, which the Troy-Bilt lacks, and gets high marks for a comfortable seat and telescoping steering wheel that can adjust for tall and short riders. Reviewers do say that the mower can be unstable on hills and doesn't respond well to tight turns because of its rear-engine design, which shifts most of the weight to the back of the frame, the same as the Troy-Bilt.
The Craftsman 29000 has not been as extensively reviewed as the Troy-Bilt, but TodaysMower.com includes it on its list of top mowers for 2015. Paul Sikkema originally reviewed the Craftsman riding mower in 2013, but updated that review in March 2015 to note that "this mower continues to be a great small yard solution." He makes special note of the engine, which he says is of better quality than normally found on riding mowers in this price range and is more powerful than those found on the TB30R.
We think both of these rear-engine riding mowers are good choices, but lean toward the Troy-Bilt on the strength of slightly stronger user feedback. At Sears.com, we see a rating of 4 stars for the Craftsman 29000, but less than 75 percent of owners give would recommend it. Complaints are varied, but some mechanical failures are noted. A couple of owners complain that doing some basic maintenance, such as changing the oil, is challenging because of the riding mower's design. Still, the majority are mostly to completely satisfied.
Finally, if a rear-engine riding mower just won't cut it, there are a couple of cheap standard lawn tractors that are worth a look. Sikkema calls the Craftsman 420cc 420 Riding Mower Model 20370 (Est. $1,120) "the best and most dependable $1000 Lawn Tractor on the market," but users don't necessarily agree (more in a moment). Even Sikkema concedes that this tractor won't compare well to many pricier models in terms of performance, but he still loves the bang for the buck. "ItÕs not for everyone but it is a great, inexpensive riding mower," he says.
But, as hinted above, user reviews aren't quite as positive. It receives 3.5 stars at Sears.com, where around 60 percent of owners recommend the lawn tractor. Reliability seems to be less than ideal, and several owners say that the tractor can be hard to start.
Because of that, we think the Ariens A19A42 (Est. $1,200) is a better bet. Sikkema doesn't review the Ariens, but does include it on his list of best choices for 2015. More significantly, owner feedback is much stronger -- a 4.3 star rating based on more than 630 reviews at HomeDepot.com (though some were originally posted at the manufacturer's web site), with around 87 percent giving the tractor their recommendation. It's a little pricier than the Craftsman lawn tractor, but it also has a few pluses, most notably an automatic transmission in place of the manual one found on the Craftsman.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Reviewed Lawn Tractors: These are the best lawn tractors and zero-turn riding mowers as identified by expert and user reviews. Editors explain the choices, and what separates the great lawn tractors from ones more likely to disappoint.
Best Lawn Tractors: For a full-sized property, you need a full-sized tractor. These powerful lawn tractors are those that reviewers say perform the best when new, and last for the long haul
Best Zero-Turn Mowers: These riding mowers cut right to the point for properties that have lots of trees and plantings. The latest models are easier to use, too.
Buying Guide: If you are not sure where to start to find the right lawn tractor for your property and your budget, these helpful hints will point you in the right direction
Our Sources: Our editors rely on feedback from the top experts as well as owner reviews to identify the best riding mowers. These are the sites we consulted, listed in the order of their helpfulness.