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Best Small Riding Lawn Mowers

By: Carl Laron on May 08, 2017

These rear-engine riding mowers are perfect for smaller properties

Rear engine riding mowers are smaller and less powerful than lawn tractors, which place the engine up front. Just like zero-turn mowers, which also have their engine at the rear, rear engine riding mowers also tend to handle a little worse, especially on hilly terrain.

Lots of shoppers for lawn tractors opt for riding mowers instead for their lower price, and we'll cover some low-cost alternatives later in this section. However, if price is less of a concern, and you'd like to ditch the high maintenance that gas-fueled tractors require, the Ryobi RM480ex (Est. $2,700) jumps to the head of the pack. This is a battery powered rear-engine riding mower that's attracting good feedback from experts and users. It's as costly as a mid-priced lawn tractor, but fans note that getting rid of the noise, emissions and extra maintenance of a gas engine are worth that trade off. In addition, and especially if you do your own maintenance, the ongoing costs can be lower than with a gas model. Paul Sikkema at TodaysMowers.com does a cost comparison.

There are two versions of this mower. The Ryobi RM480ex, also known as the Ryobi RM48111, is powered by a 100 Ah sealed lead-acid battery that provides 2.5 hours of runtime. The Ryobi RM480e (Est. $2,500), also known as the Ryobi RY48110, is powered by a smaller battery and will run for 2 hours without requiring a charge, but is otherwise identical. Unless you have a smaller property, or are budget constrained, we suggest opting for the longer-running RM480ex, though ConsumerReports.org estimates that even the RY48110 has enough juice to cut around two acres. Sikkema's estimate of run times for that riding mower are a little more conservative, but he says "I would feel quite comfortable buying the Ryobi RM480E for my one acre yard."

ConsumerReports.org has tested the RY48110. It's the top-rated riding mower there, and earns a Recommended label, though that doesn't mean that there aren't some reservations. While the use of lead-acid battery technology helps keep costs down, and the weight of lead-acid batteries (opposed to newer lithium-ion batteries) isn't a concern in a riding mower (where it would be a major concern in a push mower), there are some drawbacks -- chiefly long recharge times; figure on around 12 hours between uses. Despite a high-backed seat, it's judged to be not as comfortable for long mowing sessions as a standard lawn tractor, but that's something that can be said of just about every rear-engine riding mower.

On the plus side, performance is very good across the board, whether mulching, bagging, or discharging clippings out of the side. Ditto for handling and overall ease of use. The editors do note that there are better performing traditional lawn tractors at this price point. However, most are larger than this 38-inch model -- a plus for speed of mowing, but a minus when it comes to storage, which is one of the reasons homeowners often opt for smaller riding mowers in the first place. In addition, none are cordless electric models.

Users, on the other hand, express few reservations. Though they can sometimes be found elsewhere, Home Depot is the primary retailer for these Ryobi cordless riding mowers, and feedback, while not super extensive, is super positive. HomeDepot.com mashes together reviews of the two versions, but overall, the Ryobi enjoys a composite 4.8 star score based on more than 25 reviews, none lower than 4 stars, and recommendations from 100 percent of owners thus far. Ease of use, ease of assembly, and the joy of being free of gas and related maintenance woes lead the list of positives. The most oft-cited negative is that it can be a bit of a pain to remove the riding mower from its shipping crate. The warranty is for three years.

Cheap riding mowers that are worth considering

If you are fine with gas, and price is a concern, we found some pretty good riding mowers priced at $1,500 and below that could be perfect for properties of up to one acre.

For this report, we found the best overall feedback for the Cub Cadet CC30 (Est. $1,300). It earns a recommendation from Jose Castellanos, product expert at MowersDirect.com, and good overall feedback from owners, including a 4.2 star rating at HomeDepot.com based on nearly 80 reviews.

ConsumerReports.org looks at a step-up version, the Cub Cadet CC30 H (Est. $1,450), which replaces the manual transmission in the base CC30 with an automatic one, but is otherwise identical. The editors like that the automatic transmission improves handling compared to most rear-engine riders, but the price tag isn't all that much lower than that of the Cub Cadet XT1 LT42 (Est. $1,500), covered in our section on the best lawn tractors, so if you opt for this upgrade, it will be for the compact storage and easy ability to fit through most garden gates that this 30-inch model provides rather than price/value. Beyond that, performance is rated as very good whether mulching or discharging clippings, though only good if called upon to bag. Again, since the CC30 and CC30 H are identical save for the transmission, we expect that the cheaper base version will perform similarly.

As noted user feedback is solid, though not completely complaint free. Some durability issues are noted, as are issues shifting from forward to reverse (which is one thing that the automatic-transmission version of this mower would eliminate), but those are in the minority. The Cub Cadet CC30 is covered by a three year warranty.

If you are looking for something that's still less expensive, our Best Reviewed cheap riding mower from last year, the Troy-Bilt TB30R (Est. $1,000), is still available, and still worth considering if you are on a limited budget, but some changes in the marketplace have knocked it down a few pegs. It's no longer a recommended model at ConsumerReports.org, supplanted by the Cub Cadet and Ryobi models noted above. Now a Lowes exclusive (a version sold through independent dealers seems to no longer be available), user feedback is good at 4 stars, though durability issues -- particularly starting challenges -- do crop up.

On the plus side, the TB30R is an able performer when mulching or discharging clippings in ConsumerReports.org's testing, but bagging performance is sub-par. Some handling issues are also noted, but ease of use is very good. Overall, the editors opine that while better performing options cost just $200 to $300 more, you "could do worse" at this price point.

The TB30R is powered by a single cylinder engine Briggs & Stratton engine. The cutting deck is small at 30 inches, which makes for easier storage in a crowded garage or shed. Of course, as is true for all riding mowers in this size class, that means more passes are needed to cut a lawn -- and that's a major reason why this and similar small lawn tractors are only recommended for smaller properties. With its six-speed transmission, the mower can obtain a top speed of about 4.25 MPH. The cutting height can be adjusted in five steps between 1.5 and 3.5 inches. The high back seat is judged to be comfortable. The warranty is for two years

The Craftsman 30 in 420cc Model 29000 (Est. $1,100) is another $1,000 rear-engine mower to consider. This very compact riding mower fills the same niche as the Troy-Bilt, with its narrow 30-inch cutting deck, which can fit through standard fence openings. Despite its small size, reviewers say it still has the power to cut, mulch and bag with ease. It also boasts cruise control, which the Troy-Bilt lacks, and gets high marks for a comfortable seat and telescoping steering wheel that can adjust for tall and short riders. Reviewers do say that the mower can be unstable on hills and doesn't respond well to tight turns because of its rear-engine design, which shifts most of the weight to the back of the frame, the same as the Troy-Bilt.

The Craftsman 29000 has not been as extensively reviewed as the Troy-Bilt, but TodaysMower.com includes it on its list of top sub-$1,500 mowers for 2017. Sikkema originally reviewed the Craftsman riding mower in 2013, but updated that review in March 2015 to note that "this mower continues to be a great small yard solution." He makes special note of the engine, which he says is of better quality than normally found on riding mowers in this price range and is more powerful than that found on the TB30R. User feedback is more extensive than for the Troy-Bilt -- over 200 ratings at Sears.com -- but satisfaction is similar at 4 stars. The warranty is similar, too, at two years.

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