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A riding lawn mower is a wise investment, but finding the right one can be a daunting process. Advice abounds on the internet and elsewhere, but much of it comes from manufacturers themselves.
When faced with questions about a large purchase like this, it helps to get an unbiased opinion. That's where the BestReviews team steps in.
We buy all of the equipment we test, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. We interview independent experts and survey product owners for their opinions.
We’re proud to deliver a complete, balanced view of the options available to you. Have a read!
Luke owned and operated his own lawn and landscaping business for over a decade. Founding the business and growing it prior to an acquisition, Luke led all procurement decisions, from the purchase of blowers and lawn mowers to weed whackers and tillers. Luke uses all of these machines regularly.
We identified five riding lawn mowers, also known as lawn tractors, that deliver top performance and superb value. Each hails from a respected manufacturer, and each provides an excellent fit for particular needs. Please see our product matrix, above, for information about these fine products.
And if you want more in-depth information on the subject, please delve into our shopping guide, below.
A general rule of thumb: the smaller the cutting deck, the more nimble the machine.
The size of your land helps dictate the size of mower you should buy. You might need a simple walk-behind mower, or you might need a riding mower with a cutting deck of 30, 40, or 50 inches.
The above is a good general guide. However, you may need to opt for a smaller cutting deck if you’ve got wooded terrain, undulating land, or other obstacles to contend with.
Two significant riding mower types exist on today’s market. The first is the traditional riding mower that looks pretty much like a smaller version of a real tractor. On this type of mower, the driver changes direction via an ordinary steering wheel.
The second type is the Zero Turn Radius (ZTR) mower. A ZTR’s caster-type front wheels enable the driver to make tight turns (hence the name). The vast majority of ZTRs are steered with lap or upright levers. This feels unusual at first, but once mastered, it allows for faster maneuvering around curved beds, borders, and other intricate areas.
A riding mower’s engine splits its power between driving the vehicle forward and turning the blade. As a result, most motors are comparatively large, ranging from an entry-level 400cc to a whopping 700cc+ in the biggest models. Some manufacturers prefer to quote specs in terms of horsepower. Invariably, more hp is better!
Speed and Torque
Regardless of how the manufacturer describes the motor’s power, you can count on a speed of about four to eight mph. This is more than adequate for mowing, especially on uneven ground. Equally important to a machine’s mph rate is the fact that a more powerful motor generates more torque. Torque plays a vital role in the effective turning of the cutter blade.
Pay attention to the quality of your mower’s tongue. If the steel is of low quality, the weight of a heavy attachment like a trailer could bend it. A heavy-duty steel tongue reduces long-term wear and tear for those who use trailers and other hefty attachments.
Riding mower engines are either single cylinder or v-twin. The latter runs smoother and lasts longer than the former, but v-twins are also pricier and trickier to maintain.
Gas vs. Electric
All the motors we've discussed so far run via gas power. Electric motors have made their debut on the market, but they remain expensive by comparison. What’s more, people criticize their lack of power, short run time, and long recharge time. As technology marches on, electrically powered riding mowers are certain to improve, but we cannot recommend one at this moment in time.
Should you buy a riding mower with manual, automatic, or hydrostatic transmission?
Lots of owners prefer a machine with a manual gearbox. The best modern mowers offer clutchless changing, so you only have a single lever to deal with. But mowers with automatic transmission offer the benefit of smooth power delivery. The speed control is like that of a car; you press down harder if you want to go faster, and you release your foot from the gas to stop. Those who do a lot of stop/start mowing are bound to prefer a ride-on with automatic transmission.
Rather than using the belts or chains of a standard automatic lawn mower, a machine with hydrostatic transmission employs hydraulic oil in a closed system. Riding mowers with hydrostatic transmission are costly but durable, and they require very little maintenance.
All riding mowers feature one of two blade types. The first is the 2:1 blade. The 2:1 also has a variation called the high lift. The second is the mulching blade.
This type of blade cuts grass and releases the clippings into a rear-mounted bag or via a side discharge for later collection. 2:1 describes the double action of discharging and bagging. The “high lift” version of a 2:1 performs the same function but with greater clearing efficiency and airflow.
A mulching blade is typically more curved than a 2:1, and you’ll often see mulching blades with extra cutting edges. This blade produces fine clippings that don't require collection; they can be left on the lawn as mulch.
On the downside, mowing with a mulching blade consumes more time. These blades don’t “throw” as well as 2:1 and high lift blades, and damp grass can clog the blades. However, there are no clippings to empty.
Some 2:1 mowers include a mulching kit as an extra. In many cases, you can swap one blade for the other in order to get the performance you prefer. However, you should always check with the manufacturer first. Running the wrong blade is dangerous and could damage your equipment.
As you search for a new riding lawn mower, you may wish to consider products with the following extras and accessories:
In addition to these cool features, a number of front- and rear-mounted attachments can extend the use of your mower beyond just cutting grass. Not all riding lawn mowers can accommodate these attachments, however. It depends on the model.
Optional front-mounted attachments include dozer blades/plows, snow blowers/throwers, scoops, and lawn dethatchers. Optional rear-mounted attachments include various dump carts, dethatchers, leaf sweepers, lawn aerators, rollers, and spreaders.
Before investing in a particular model, ask yourself if the product will be able to help you complete the tasks you do the most. For example, if you aerate your lawn four times a year, a riding mower that cannot accommodate an aerator is probably not the best choice for you.
A Note About Attachment Safety
Any attachment you add to your riding lawn mower could potentially interfere with its center of gravity and, therefore, its stability. Make sure the riding mower you buy can safely accommodate the add-on attachments you want. For example, some mowers have a lower center of gravity than others and are therefore more accommodating of attachments on the back.
Always cut a first pass around the outside of your lawn or garden with the discharge chute facing inside. This prevents lawn clippings and other debris from polluting your exterior flower beds.
The five riding lawn mowers in our product matrix represent a fairly accurate spread of prices in the homeowner bracket. When shopping for a riding mower, keep the following price tips in mind:
Luke recommends that you post a written tracker on your wall or computer that monitors your adherence to a regular schedule. Use this schedule to remain mindful of the following:
Before you begin any at-home maintenance, always ensure the ignition is turned off. It's also a good idea to disconnect the battery terminal or spark plug wires so the mower can't be started by accident.
Maintenance tasks specific to the mower components are as follows:
Always follow instructions carefully when changing blades or belts. Never attempt to free an obstruction when the motor is running — especially not with a stick or gloved hand.
Always follow manufacturer recommendations if performing your own maintenance, or ask a professional to service your riding lawn mower.
One of the most important steps you can take toward successful maintenance of your riding lawn mower is regular blade sharpening. As a general rule of thumb, Luke advises that you sharpen your blades after every eight hours of use. If you cut grass for two hours per week, this means that you’ll need to sharpen your blades every month.
Establish a plan for how you will remove the blades from the mower, and follow a safety protocol when you do. In many cases, it makes sense to buy your own sharpening grinder and complete the task yourself.
Sharp blades are important to the health of your mower, but that’s not all. If you fail to mow your lawn with a sharp blade, you will soon see yellow tips develop on your grass, ruining the look of what otherwise might be a green and healthy lawn.
Cutting with a dull blade can make grass appear tarnished and yellow. Regular blade sharpening can greatly enhance the look of your yard—but make sure you know how to do it safely.