The best lawn tractor? It depends on your lawn and
say the main considerations in selecting a lawn tractor are your lawn's size
and slope plus the obstacles you need to mow around. Keep in mind that although
the names are similar, there's a big distinction between small lawn tractors
and heavy-duty garden tractors -- the latter have sturdier construction for
first step is to calculate your lawn size in acres. Remember, there are 43,560
square feet per acre. Your lawn size is probably much smaller than the total
area of your lot.
- Small lawns with few
obstacles (0.5 to 1 acre): An inexpensive riding mower or manual-transmission lawn
tractor with a single-cylinder engine of at least 14.5 horsepower works fine,
though pedal-operated automatic transmissions can further speed mowing. (Note
that walk-behind lawn mowers are recommended for lawns smaller than half
an acre. Robotic lawn mowers might also do the trick. See our separate
reports on these.)
- Medium-sized lawns
with few obstacles (1 to 2 acres): A lawn tractor with an automatic
transmission, cruise control and a twin-cylinder engine of 17 horsepower or
more will be the most convenient.
- Lawns with lots of
obstacles: If your lawn is flat, a zero-turn mower is fastest and most convenient, but
reviews warn that they tend to slide on slopes. For hills, a lawn tractor with
a wider deck, large tires and an automatic transmission will be safer and
- Large lawns or garden
plowing (3 or more acres): A garden tractor with an 18- to 24-horsepower
twin-cylinder engine and a 46- to 54-inch mowing deck will be more durable than
a lawn tractor. Garden tractors cost more, but experts say that when they're
well maintained, they'll outlast lawn tractors by years. (For that reason, a
secondhand garden tractor might be a better buy than a new lawn tractor.) If all
you want to do is mow a large, flat lawn, then a zero-turn mower with a wide
deck can cut the mowing time by about half.
considering time savings, remember to take trimming into account. After mowing,
you may need a walk-behind lawn mower to get into tight spaces, and you'll
almost certainly need a string trimmer to trim along walls and fences and
around shrubs. Some lawn tractors and riding mowers minimize trimming, so it's
the total lawn care time that counts, not just mowing time.
Lawn tractor and riding mower brands
as John Deere often rank higher in reviews for performance, and they have
better repair records. Another company, American Yard Products, which is owned
by Husqvarna, makes Husqvarna, Poulan (a budget brand) and the middle-range
Yard Tractor (YT) lawn tractors branded as Craftsman; these models usually rank
at about the middle based on objective tests. (All Craftsman models are built
to Craftsman specifications, though, just as John Deere engines -- though made
by other companies -- are built to John Deere specifications.)
generally fare the worst for reliability; these include Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt,
White, Yard-Man and Yard Machines. MTD now makes the LT series of lawn tractors
for Craftsman, as well as the Craftsman zero-turn mowers, and Toro outsources
its residential lawn tractors to MTD. ConsumerReports.org doesn't evaluate
Ariens for brand reliability, but it earns high marks as a brand from Paul Sikkema
at TodaysMower.com -- a site where we found the best current coverage of "who
vary in handling clippings
all lawn tractors handle clippings well in all three modes (side-discharging,
mulching or bagging). Your best bet is to choose a lawn tractor that handles
clippings in the mode you intend to use most often. With rare exceptions, most
lawn tractors side-discharge clippings, and they mow more slowly when set up to
mulch or bag. Although bags are often included with walk-behind lawn mowers,
bagging kits are a fairly expensive option on lawn tractors, and not every lawn
tractor can use them.
kits (*Est. $55 to $100, or more) are also optional but less expensive than
bagging kits. Mulching blades work well only on dry grass, but lawn experts
don't recommend mowing wet grass anyway. Lawn tractor expert Michael MacCaskey notes
that mowing in side-discharge mode "can throw rocks like bullets." He
recommends using a mulching deck, which also fertilizes the lawn. Experts say
mulching reduces fertilizer needs by about a third.
If you want
to switch among modes, be sure to pick a lawn tractor that makes this easy. One
of the most common complaints from owners is that attaching a bag or changing
to mulching mode takes far longer than they'd like.
Important lawn tractor features
experts say to look for when shopping for a riding mower, lawn tractor, garden
tractor or zero-turn mower:
- Look for 2011 or 2012
models. Even if the model isn't CARB-certified, lawn tractors dated 2011 or later must
meet EPA emissions limits -- stricter than on 2010 models. Dealers may still
have 2010 models mixed in with the newer, less-polluting 2011 and 2012 lawn
tractors and riding mowers.
- Check the hour meter
on your new purchase. Sometimes owners report that after taking delivery of a lawn tractor they
bought as new, they noticed quite a few hours on the hour meter. This indicates
that the tractor has been used for demonstrations or has had a previous owner.
- Don't buy more mower than you need. Experts suggest using a lawn tractor only for lawns larger than half an
your lawn is smaller, you can accomplish the job just as well -- at lower cost
-- with a walk-behind mower.
- The engine makes a difference, but don't judge it by
horsepower. Experts at Popular Mechanics and ConsumerReports.org don't find much
difference in mowing performance based on horsepower.
- A larger deck isn't
always better. For
mowing up to about 2 acres, reviews say a 38- to 42-inch two-bladed deck makes
for the smoothest, most even cutting. A wider deck can add stability on slopes,
however, and shorten mowing time when you have 3 acres or more to mow.
- Anti-scalping wheels are crucial for cutting
evenness. These wheels help keep the mower blades level on uneven ground.
- The turning radius
affects maneuverability and speed. Zero-turn mowers pivot, but most other lawn tractors leave a
circle of uncut grass when they turn. You have to go back and cut this on
another pass. This circle is usually smallest on four-wheel-steering lawn
tractors. If you have a lot of
obstacles to mow around, a zero-turn mower (for flat land) or a lawn tractor
with a small turning radius will speed up mowing.
- Automatic hydrostatic
transmission with cruise control is most convenient. But reviews also say
a tractor with gear-drive transmission is fine if you're mowing a fairly flat
lawn with few obstacles because you won't need to change gears often anyway.
Pedals make driving
forward and reverse with foot pedals makes the work easier;
you can keep both hands on the steering wheel and make smooth
transitions. With pedals, driving the tractor is a lot like driving a car, but
reviewers say some pedals are harder to reach than others.
- Look for easy deck
leveling and height adjustment. Levers are easier to reach and move on some
lawn tractors. A few models even
adjust height with the push of a button.
- Consider how easy it
is to gauge fuel level and refill the tank. We found quite a few complaints from
owners about difficulty with both tasks.
- Consider the available
setup and repair services. Often, the price is the same from a big-box store as it
is from a local dealer, but the dealer usually makes sure the battery is fully
charged (extremely important), assembles the tractor and lets you test-drive
it. Customer service might also be better. If you do buy from a big-box store,
be sure to register the warranty with the manufacturer.
- Attachments are usually
extra. Even mulching and bagging kits are extra options on lawn tractors.