Smart Shopping: Lawn Tractors

If your lawn is larger than a half-acre, a ride-on lawn tractor could be your best option.

Heated competition among the big-box stores has lowered the price of a well-equipped automatic-drive tractor to as little as $1,000 or so. That's several hundred dollars less than comparable machines from only a few years ago.

Big-name brands are also piling on premium features as they trade some of the profit margins they enjoyed at the corner mower shop for the added volume of home centers and large retailers like Sears, which together sell nearly 70 percent of lawn tractors.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Lawn tractors now dominate the ride-on marketplace, with some models available for less than the cost of a rear-engine riding mower. (Keep in mind, though, that a bagging kit will typically add another $250 to $400 to the total cost). Tractors can accept light-duty attachments to plow, tow a cart, or clear snow. Lower prices and versatility help explain why lawn tractors have become far more popular than riding mowers.

Tight-turning riders are a growing alternative. Also known as zero-turn-radius models, these let you steer by pushing or pulling levers, each controlling a driven rear wheel. The advantage is added maneuverability in tight spots and around obstacles. But you pay a premium for agility and faster cutting.

Price range: lawn tractors, $1,000 to $2,500; tight-turning riders and zero-turn radius, $2,500 to $7,000 and beyond.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

Lower-priced models are gear-driven and require a shift lever and combination brake/clutch to change speed. Spending more will buy you a model with a clutchless automatic drive, which allows even more convenient, continuously variable speed changes via a hydrostatic transmission or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Most models have a translucent fuel tank, making it easy to check fuel level. Some have a fuel gauge and cupholders. Still others provide cruise control to rest your foot on long runs and an electric power takeoff (PTO) switch to engage the cutting blades, instead of a manual lever.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Wide-swath mowing at a reasonable price makes lawn tractors an appealing choice if you have a half-acre or more of lawn. Falling prices for tractors also help explain why small, rear-engine riders are nearly extinct.

Keep these points in mind as you shop:

Determine the mowing you'll do. All tractors can side-discharge clippings, the mode most people use. Many include a mulching plate that seals the deck so clippings are cut finely and deposited into the lawn rather than on it. But a kit for bagging clippings typically costs hundreds of dollars extra. Before paying more for that bagging, be sure that the model you're considering did well in that mode and that you will use it.

Pick your retailer. Most of the brands we tested are now at major retailers as well as dealers. Big-box stores tend to have the lowest prices. But dealers typically offer more personalized service, setup, and instruction. Cub Cadet, John Deere, Poulan, Toro, and Yard Machines are at Home Depot. John Deere, Husqvarna, and Troy-Bilt are sold at Lowe's. Sears sells Craftsman and Husqvarna, and Wal-Mart has Yard Machines and Yard-Man.

Don't count horses. Some models now pack 20 hp or more. Higher horsepower doesn't guarantee more performance, however; models with as little as 17 hp mowed as well as brawnier models.

Play it safe. Use common sense when mowing. Wear ear plugs or muffs; all of the machines we tested emitted more than the 85 decibels at which we recommend hearing protection. Don't mow on grades steeper than 15 percent. Look behind you when you mow in reverse.

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