For the second year in a row, we saw some heavy-duty love from experts for the Craftsman Pro 20442 (Est. $2,000). 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. At TodaysMower.com Paul Sikkema agrees, saying, "This is one of the best Craftsman mowers in the last 15 years."
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. Changing the blades is easy, Sikkema notes, 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 have a smaller lawn and don't have a lot of obstacles to cut around on your property, the Cub Cadet XT1 LT42 (Est. $1,500) is a very good choice. It's part of the Cub Cadet Enduro series line that was updated in 2015. This mower is best for smooth, flat lawns and properties of no more than 2 acres (although smaller is probably better), but, if that's what you have, Sikkema says any of the XT1 series will give you a perfect cut. In a free-to-the-public article by Ed Perratore for ConsumerReports.org, he says testers were impressed with the improvements Cub Cadet made in this series in 2015, including, "improved steering, better transmissions, and a more durable drive system."
If 42 inches is a bit too small for your needs, the Cub Cadet XT1 LT46 (Est. $1,700) is very similar to the Craftsman 20442, but you'll save a few hundred dollars. Of course, the Cub Cadet Enduro series lacks the Craftsman's tight 5-inch turning radius -- it's 16 inches. In addition, while it also has a Kohler engine, it's less powerful overall and is 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 (they tested the 46-inch model, but the 42-inch model can be expected to perform about the same). The Cub Cadet is a step behind when it comes to handling and ease of use -- no surprise given the broader turn radius. If that's not an issue you may be happier with the lower price of the Cub Cadet series.
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.
John Deer tractors are also extremely popular with experts, although they tend to be pricier than many other brands. Among John Deere tractors, one of the highest rated in expert testing is the John Deere X350 (Est. $3,200). In a report for ConsumerReports.org that's free to the public, Ed Perratore says the X350's high-quality features make it worth its premium price. These include an electric power take-off, two headlights and cruise control. Handling and ease of use are both judged to be excellent, and user say it's comfortable and highly maneuverable. They also remark favorably on its sturdy, durable build.
The 42-inch John Deere X350 has a top forward speed of 5.5 mph, and a reverse speed of 4 mph. Its turning radius is standard, however, at 16 inches. While that used to be considered superior, that's been eclipsed by the 5-inch turning radius of the Craftsman 20442. The mower deck is highly adjustable with 13 possible positions. It also is compatible with a wide variety of attachments, including a mulching system, rear bagger, front thatcher, front blade and a snow blower, among others. This makes it a highly versatile machine, and it also comes with one of the best warranties for riding mowers: four years or 300 hours.