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Best Zero-turn Mowers

By: Carl Laron on May 08, 2017

Steering-wheel-equipped zero-turn mowers point you in the right direction

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 strong feedback. It scores well enough in testing at ConsumerReports.org to earn recommended status. Paul Sikkema of TodaysMowers.com puts this mower on his list of best "economy" (less than $3900) ZTRs and offers it a recommendation. "This is a great mower if you want a ZTR but don't like lap bars," he says. He notes that like all 42-inch machines, it is an ideal size for a 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.

Testing by ConsumerReports.org 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. Features are abundant, too. In addition to the conventional steering system, pluses include Smart Park, which automatically sets the parking break and turns off the mowing deck if you get off of the machine. "The Toro SW4200 packs a load of features into a compact sized mower that's easy to maneuver," says Jose Castellanos at MowersDirect.com.

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, and the majority of users seem mostly to extremely pleased with the SW4200.

If you have a larger property, up to about 1.5 acres, a 46-inch zero turn mower might be a better option. We saw strong feedback for the Troy-Bilt Mustang Pivot 46 (Est. $2,900), a Lowes exclusive. Like the Toro, it uses a conventional steering system for easier maneuvering and better stability. ConsumerReports.org actually likes it a touch better than the Toro, making this the highest rated ZTR riding mower with conventional steering, and the second highest rated ZTR overall. It's especially impressive when mulching or bagging, and even very good when it comes to discharging clippings to the side. Ergonomics and handling are top rated, too.

The only reason we are not quite ready to elevate the Troy-Bilt to Best Reviewed status is that aside from ConsumerReports,org, feedback is scant. User feedback is found primarily at Lowes.com, and only a little more than 30 owners have weighed in. Most are happy, and the Mustang Pivot 46 earns a score of 4 stars. However, there are some reports of durability issues. One thing to keep in mind with this, and any ZTR for that matter, is that these are not lawn tractors, as Sikkema points out. Using them on tall grass or on anything other than standard lawns is a short cut to disappointment. "Bouncing through the pasture will quickly destroy your deck, crack your frame and/or transmissions," he says. That said, the reinforced steel frame does carry a limited lifetime warranty, while the rest of the riding mower is covered for three years.

All zero-turn mowers are pricey compared to lawn tractors, and the Toro SW4200 and Troy-Bult Mustang Pivot are no exceptions. But if you are comfortable with the traditional steering levers used in most ZTRs (or are willing to take the time it takes to master their use) you can save a few dollars and get an outstanding zero-turn mower in the form of the 42-inch Troy-Bilt Mustang 42 (Est. $2,300). It's the top-rated ZTR at ConsumerReports.org, and a Best Buy as well. In a free article, Paul Hope of ConsumerReports.org says that the Mustang 42 offers "perfect cutting performance in all three modes at a price that's much lower than other models."

While handling will obviously take a back seat to steering-wheel equipped ZTRs, it's still very good, and ease-of-use is top rated. Cited small pluses include a comfortable high-backed seat and a fuel gauge that's easy to see without getting out of that seat. There's a cup holder, too. A washout port makes clean up a snap when the mowing is done. The narrow deck means that it will take more passes to cover your property compared to a 46-inch or larger model, but, like the SW4200, as long as that property is an acre or less, that's not a deal killer.

Again, you'll find this model primarily at Lowes. We spotted some complaints about durability, issues with Lowes itself, and, of course, handling in the 80 or so user reviews posted at Lowes.com, but most offer this zero-turn riding mower kudos, as reflected in its 4.5 star score. The warranty is for three years, plus lifetime (limited) on the frame.

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