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For value and performance, the Craftsman 20442 is our top pick

For 2015, we saw some heavy-duty love from experts for the Craftsman Pro 20442 (Est. $2,200). In an article that's free to non-subscribers, ConsumerReports.org names it one of the top tractors available, and calls it a Best Buy. It's not on the list of top tractors at TodaysMower.com, but that's only because site owner Paul Sikkema had not yet written a review. However, Sikkema leaves no doubt how he feels about it in another article on the site that profiles the Craftsman Pro Series tractors that the 20442 is part of. Of the Craftsman 20442, Sikkema says, "If you want the best cut, the best bagging and the best mulching in a residential lawn/garden tractor this is it."

Best riding lawn mower

Craftsman Pro 20442
Craftsman Pro 20442

In expert testing, the performance is impressive across the board, only slipping a notch when judged on how well it disperses clippings to the side (though it's still very good in that regard). Those with lots of trees on their properties might naturally gravitate toward a zero-turn mower, which we discuss elsewhere in this report, but Sikkema notes that with its 5-inch turning radius, the 20442 might make you forget about that. The ergonomics are excellent as well, with a comfortable seat and controls that are intuitive and easy to reach. There are loads of nice touches, such as the ability to see the fuel level without have to leave the tractor's seat and a single-lever adjustment to change the cutting height. If there's a negative it's that you need to change the blades if you want to mulch, and the mulching kit costs an extra $75. However, Sikkema notes that changing the blades is not a big deal thanks to the tractor's easy-to-remove cutting deck. Other touches include a washout port for quick cleaning and cruise control.

The Craftsman 20442 is powered by a 24-hp "premium" Kohler V-twin Elite engine that's well regarded. Sikkema appreciates the overall build quality, but especially an "automobile style" cast-iron front axle, which is backed by a lifetime warranty. The rest of the warranty is more typical, and less generous: two years overall, plus five years for the frame.

If you want a cheaper lawn tractor, and don't have a lot of trees or other obstacles to cut around on your property, the Cub Cadet XT1 LT46 (Est. $1,700) is very similar. That's not a complete surprise as both tractors are built for their respective brands by MTD Products -- a major producer of outdoor power equipment. Other MTD-made brands include Toro, Troy-Bilt, Poulan, Yard Machines and several more.

Reports say that the XT1 LT46 (which is also known as the Cub Cadet 13APA1CT056) uses the same frame and most of the same components as the Craftsman Pro Series tractors, including the 20442 -- but what isn't the same is pretty significant. The Cub Cadet lacks the Craftsman's tight 5-inch turning radius -- it's 16 inches instead. In addition, while it also has a Kohler engine, it's less powerful at 22 hp, and considered a small step down in quality.

Performance is excellent nonetheless -- on a par with the Craftsman 20442 in one comparative test when it comes to mulching, bagging and side discharging clippings. It is a step behind when it comes to handling and ease of use -- no surprise given the broader turn radius. If that's not a concern -- for example if your property is relatively flat and obstacle-free, you can save around $500 by opting for the Cub Cadet instead.

On caveat is that the Cub Cadet brand's reliability reputation takes a hit in one large survey of tractor owners, but the warranty of the XT1 is one year longer than the Craftsman (although the front axle warranty is only for five years instead of lifetime). Sikkema acknowledges the issues that have plagued Cub Cadet tractors in the past, but says that this and other riding mowers in the same series are "completely redesigned and will not suffer the 'sins' of the past engineers." User reviews, while not overwhelming in numbers, are ample enough to show that most are satisfied thus far. The Cub Cadet XT1 13APA1CT056 gets a 4.6 rating at HomeDepot.com, with 93 percent of owners saying that they would recommend it. It also draws top ratings from a handful of reviewers at MowersDirect.com, where product expert Jose Castellanos awards it the site's Recommended tag.

We also saw some great feedback for John Deere tractors. We named the John Deere X304 (Est. $3,800) as one of the best lawn tractors available in our 2014 report. It remains available and is still a top choice, even though some newer tractors are getting more attention from reviewers. Owners say the X304 is fun to drive and user-friendly, with a cushioned high-back seat, large 3.3-gallon fuel tank, electric power takeoff and cup holder. The only feature it's missing is a washout port to clean under the mower deck, which is just a minor inconvenience to most owners. The X304 has a 42-inch cutting deck, so it might be a better fit than the Craftsman/Cub Cadet (which have 46-inch cutting decks) if you need to cut in close quarters, but it might take an extra pass or two to finish off a large expanse of lawn. The 15-inch turning radius makes it more maneuverable than most lawn tractors, but that's now been eclipsed by the 5-inch turning radius of the Craftsman 20442

Many reviewers say the X304's capacity to use so many attachments is one of its best qualities. John Deere offers many compatible implements, including a snow blower, garden cart, front blade, shovel and sprayer. It also comes with one of the best warranties for riding mowers: four years or 300 hours. According to a large survey by a reputable consumer organization, John Deere is one of the most reliable brands of lawn tractors.

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 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.

Cheap Riding Lawn Mowers: If your property is modestly sized, there's no need to spend a mint to get a competent riding mower. These are the models most likely to please.

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.

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