Designed only for relatively flat lawns, zero-turn mowers (or ZTR mowers) leave no circle of uncut grass at the end of a row and make it easier to mow around obstacles. They also move faster than regular lawn tractors -- so they can cut mowing time in half while also minimizing trimming afterward. Most zero-turn mowers can't tow carts or mount other attachments, though some can push a snow blade. Unlike lawn tractors, zero-turn mowers have rear-mounted engines.
Steering is done via a pair of levers called tillers, each controlling a wheel. One pedal drives the mower forward and another in reverse. Operating a zero-turn mower takes some practice, but most owners say it takes just one mowing session to get used to steering with the tillers.
Toro zero-turn mowers have earned mostly positive reviews over the years, and the current Toro TimeCutter Smart Speed (SS) series earns good reviews from several sources. The "Smart Speed" feature means you can flip a lever to change the speed of movement -- slowing down to maneuver around obstacles, for example -- without slowing the blades or the engine. Maximum forward speed is 7 mph, and the mowers are powered by V-twin engines and provide high-back seats. The three-year warranty is another plus.
The 50-inch Toro SS5000 (Est. $3,300) earns high marks from over three dozen owners reviewing it at HomeDepot.com; nearly all say they'd recommend it to a friend. Owners love both the fast mowing and the cut quality. This mower also earns kudos from over a dozen owners reviewing it at MowersDirect.com, though two owners say they received lemons. Staff at MowersDirect.com names this model their top recommendation among zero-turn mowers, rating it for lawns two acres or more in size and noting that the extra width makes it more stable than a 42-inch zero-turn mower.
ConsumerReports.org doesn't test the Toro SS5000, instead testing the smaller 42-inch Toro SS4235 74627 and applying those results to the similar Toro SS4235 74624. This model is sized for lawns up to 1.5 acres, but earns mixed ratings from owners reviewing it at HomeDepot.com and MowersDirect.com. At HomeDepot.com, only about three-fourths of the owners reviewing it say they'd recommend it to a friend.
For lawns up to about 1.5 acres, objective tests also give high marks to the 42-inch Craftsman 25001 (*Est. $2,300) in all three modes of handling clippings (side-discharging, mulching and bagging), and the price makes it an excellent value. It includes an hour meter (an extra option on the Toro) to keep track of usage. Over a dozen owners reviewing the Craftsman 25001 at Sears.com also give this mower mostly positive reviews. Several note that it's made by MTD, which also makes Cub Cadet and Troy-Bilt zero-turn mowers. This is not necessarily a plus, since these brands have fairly poor repair records overall. With a maximum speed of 6 mph, the Craftsman 25001 is also a little slower than the Toro mowers.
The 42-inch Snapper 150Z ZT2142 (*Est. $2,600) is even slower at 5.5 mph, but tests show that it performs and handles as well as the Toro and Craftsman mowers discussed above. Cutting height is adjusted electronically for extra convenience; it's infinitely variable between 1.5 and 3.75 inches. Extra options include a dump cart, which is unusual among zero-turn mowers as is the cast-iron front axle. An enthusiastic review of an earlier Snapper 150Z model at ConsumerGuide.com notes that this axle helps stabilize it on turns providing better performance on hills than most zero-turn mowers. The current Snapper 150Z is powered by a single-cylinder 21-horsepower Briggs & Stratton Professional engine and is CARB-certified.
If John Deere's good repair record is more important to you than bagging, consider the 42-inch John Deere Z225 (*Est. $2,900), whose top forward speed of 7 mph matches that of the Toro SS mowers. However, adjusting the cutting height is less convenient than on the Snapper 150Z, and the John Deere Z225 lacks the "Smart Speed" feature that boosts ease of use on the Toro zero-turn mowers.
The Craftsman, Snapper and John Deere zero-turn mowers discussed above carry two-year warranties. The Toro three-year warranty plus its good reviews and ease of use give it the edge overall. Keep in mind, though, that your best choice may well depend on which brand is easiest to maintain and repair in your local area. Experts advise consulting local dealers for information.