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. $2,900) 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 top notch 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."
User reviews are limited (and the ones posted at HomeDepot.com at the time of our visit included feedback for a wide variety of mowers -- most of which are very different from the SW4200). However, we found nearly a dozen at Toro's site and a handful more at MowersDirect.com -- all of which rate it 4 or, mostly, 5 stars overall. Every owner weighing in thus far says that they would recommend the Toro 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. $3,000) and considers bagging to only so-so, Sikkema is more blunt: "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 shouldnÕt 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 -- more than 110 reviews -- and most are pretty positive. The Cub Cadet draws a rating of 4.6 stars, with 93 percent saying that they would recommend this zero-turn mower.
If you are on a tighter budget still but want a zero-turn mower, the Craftsman 20411 (Est. $2,000) is about the cheapest model that gets solid expert and user feedback; itÕs the cheapest zero-turn mower that Sikkema recommends. It attracts 30 user reviews and a 4-star rating at Sears.com. Some owners are clearly displeased by defects in mowers they received, but most seem to be thrilled. This is a conventional zero-turn riding mower, with lever/lap bar controls, so there's a little more to get a grip on before you master using it -- and that's reflected in the feedback. That said, most owners say that getting the hang of using the Craftsman isn't an ordeal and that afterwards, operation is fast, reliable and even fun.
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
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.