June 12, 2013 at 12:52 PM ET
Nothing like spending a hot summer day heaving a lawn mower around the yard to make you warm to the idea of a riding mower. Although it requires quite a leap in price, it certainly beats a walk-behind mower for grass that covers more than half an acre. You don’t need to upgrade all the way to a $2,500 ZTR mower that can turn on a dime. For less than $1,500 you can get behind the wheel of a well-reviewed lawn tractor that runs circles around your old push mower.
Here are Cheapism’s top picks among inexpensive riding mowers:
* The Ariens 960460056 (starting at $1,399) has a powerful 22-horsepower, twin-cylinder Briggs & Stratton underneath the hood, where most other budget models have single-cylinder engines. The wide 46-inch cutting deck and 16-inch turning radius help users finish the job in fewer passes. Reviewers say they can count on a level cut even when they’re not on level ground. Many particularly appreciate the ability to mow in reverse and put the machine on cruise control. (Where to buy)
* The Craftsman LT2500 (starting at $1,377) likewise boasts a 46-inch cutting deck, cruise control, and a 22 hp engine, in this case a single-cylinder Kohler. A five-year warranty on the frame and a lifetime guarantee on the cast-iron front axle supplement the two-year limited warranty you typically see on inexpensive mowers. Reviewers consider this lawn tractor an excellent value for the money. (Where to buy)
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* The John Deere D105 (starting at $1,499) ups the ante on its already well-reviewed predecessor with an automatic transmission in place of the old gear-drive system. Expert and user reviewers say it’s easy to use and rate the brand as one of the most reliable. This model has a 17.5 hp engine and a 42-inch deck that promises precision, with 13 different cutting heights between 1 and 4 inches. (Where to buy)
* The Troy-Bilt Bronco (starting at $1,199) is another solid contender, with specs in the same neighborhood -- 19 hp Kohler engine, 42-inch cutting deck, 18-inch turning radius -- but a price hundreds of dollars lower. Experts and users report that it deftly disposes of grass clippings and handles well even on hills. (Where to buy)
These mowers all have some type of automatic transmission, so rather than shifting manually among pre-set speeds, you can move along at any speed up to the maximum, which ranges from 5 to 5.5 mph and 2.3 to 5.5 mph in reverse. Consumers sometimes grouse in online reviews that these machines (with the exception of the Ariens) don’t mow in reverse, but guidelines from the Consumer Product Safety Commission discourage reverse mowing.
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If you have a particularly large yard, look for a larger gas tank so you don’t have to refill mid-mow. The Ariens and John Deere models listed here hold about 2.5 gallons, while the Craftsman and Troy-Bilt hold about 1.5. These and other budget lawn tractors discharge grass clippings out to the side; a mulching kit or bagger typically costs extra.
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