Up to now, zero-turn mowers were appreciated for their ability to cut fast and cut close, making them ideal for large, flat properties with lots of plantings and other obstacles to negotiate. However, their more complicated steering and control mechanisms (compared to lawn tractors) and poor stability, especially on sloped ground, was not as widely liked.
That has changed markedly with the introduction of zero-turn mowers with conventional steering wheel controls. With steerable front wheels in place of the caster-style wheels found on traditional zero-turn mowers, these newer models navigate easier, offer better stability on hills and dips, and remove the learning curve that other zero-turn mowers demand, experts say.
Among these steering-wheel equipped zero-turn mowers, the Toro TimeCutter SW4200 (Est. $3,000) draws terrific feedback. It scores well enough in testing at ConsumerReports.org to be one of the top zero-turn-radius riders identified in a free article posted at the site. You can count Paul Sikkema of TodaysMowers.com as a big fan as well. He likes all of the Toro Zero Turn tractors but says that the SW4200 "will be a very popular mower for most homeowners." He adds that "This is the model I would pick for my one acre lawn."
Advantages start with the steering system. Instead of using levers to run one wheel in one direction while the other spins in the other to turn the mower practically in place, the conventional steering wheel and steerable front tires make control much easier, with better traction on hills, including the ability to more easily turn at the bottom of slopes -- although a conventional lawn tractor, which we cover elsewhere in this report, will have better traction still and be even more stable, Sikkema notes. He also notes that this steering system puts less stress on the riding mower's transmission, preventing possible premature failure.
Independent testing shows very good performance across the board whether bagging, mulching or discharging clippings to the side. Handling and ease of use are considered top notch. Ergonomics are excellent as well, including a comfortable seat. Build quality draws kudos, as does the new motor that Toro uses in this model. "These engines were specifically created to deliver the best performance by matching the torque curve of the engine to the power needs of the Toro deck it powers," Sikkema says. In plain English, that means that "It gives the engine more available power when you need it."
Owners are equally complimentary, with many saying that this Toro zero turn tractor is the best they've ever owned -- especially those who have upgraded from an older, less maneuverable, more traditional riding mower. Most would recommend it; although we did spot some durability complaints, as well as those who say it's simply not as stable as a front-engine lawn tractor. However, those are in the minority, the vast majority of reviewers are extremely pleased with the SW4200.
All zero-turn mowers are pricey compared to lawn tractors, and the SW4200 is no exception. But if you'd like to save at least a few dollars and get a well-regarded model with steering-wheel control, the Cub Cadet RZT S 42 (Est. $2,700) is worth considering. It's not as powerful as the SW4200 -- Sikkema rates it as good choice for flat lawns and those with gentle slopes, but it delivers all of the ease of use and most of the performance of pricier zero-turn mowers.
Bagging is this zero turn mower's shortfall. An independent tester looks at a 46-inch version of this mower, the Cub Cadet RZT-S 46 (Est. $3,200) and considers bagging to only so-so, Sikkema is more blunt, saying, "The 42/46 inch bagger available is notorious for not bagging fresh grass well," he says, though performance is better with leaves and dry grass.
Ease of use is generally well liked. Sikkema notes that when you back up the mower, the cutting deck turns off for safety. He has no issues with this, but Geof Fowler at Tractor.com says that reversing takes more effort than he would like. "The reverse pedal, perhaps to discourage mowing in reverse, runs through a pedal-lever that sticks straight out from the floorboard and requires lifting one's foot to reach the pedal," he says. He adds that were he to buy the Cub Cadet, he might look into changing that set up on his own (or with the help of a local machine shop or fabricator), but that even as is, the pedal arrangement works "and shouldn't in any way be considered a show-stopper."
The Cub Cadet RZT S 42 has been around long enough to have accumulated a decent volume of user feedback. HomeDepot.com hosts the most we spotted and most are pretty positive. Even those with a lot of obstacles say this mower makes short work of their lawn cutting chores.
Elsewhere in this report: