The ride-on mower market is now so diverse that choosing the right model is as tricky as choosing a new car. Luckily, We’ve uncovered great options for both beginners and pros.
Types of ride-on mowers
The most familiar type of ride-on mower is a miniaturised tractor with its engine upfront and a mowing deck suspended under the chassis. New models usually have hydrostatic transmissions (HSTs) controlled via separate pedals for forward and reverse, so there’s no clutch to worry about. While they’re as easy to drive as an automatic car, they handle like a tractor, which makes mowing around obstacles a chore.
An alternative design – and one that is becoming increasingly popular because of its manoeuvrability: and practicality – is the zero-turn mower. They are driven like a tank but, compared to tractor-types, handle like a go-cart.
You control them by using two levers, each connected via their own transmission to the corresponding rear wheel. Push both levers forward to go straight ahead at full speed, pull them back in unison to slow and reverse, and turn by moving one lever more than the other so the appropriate wheel spins faster.
Manoeuvrability: the rear-wheel lever steering allows exceptionally precise control and the ability to spin in one spot with one wheel moving forwards and the other in reverse, which makes navigating obstacles easier while also making it more efficient for mowing a rectangular lawn, as you can swivel at the end of the lawn to crack into another run right beside the previous one.
Visibility: since the engine is rear-mounted, they offer excellent visibility of the cutting deck allowing you to safely mow right up to the edges of obstacles.
Speed: they’re slightly faster in a straight line than tractor mowers (by about 3km/h), though with fairly manageable top speeds of 10 to 11km/h.
- Learning curve: it takes a while to get used to controlling lever-steering mowers and some users find the control system daunting and very difficult to get to grips with.
- Cut quality: They generally don’t cut quite as cleanly on lower cutting height settings as tractor-types.
- Only suitable on the flat: zero-turn mowers with two free-spinning castors at the front of the chassis (like the three lever zero-turns we tested) aren’t suitable for anything but a gentle incline, as they’re liable to swing downhill on slopes. Note – because of their high centre of gravity, the tractor-style models on test are unsafe on anything steeper than a 10° incline.
Note – if you’re keen on zero-turn but find twin-lever controls daunting, there are models available with a steering wheel (presently, the only examples you can get in New Zealand are from Toro and Cub Cadet). They have steerable front wheels rather than castors, and, when the wheel is turned sharply enough, they drive one of their rear wheels in reverse to spin in one spot. Since you control the front wheels, they’re safer on slopes than models with free-spinning castors.
There are also smaller rear-engine ride-on mowers that are not zero-turn. They have a steering wheel, and are often less expensive, but lack the power of tractor-types or zero-turns.
Mowing, mulching and catching
The way clippings are fired out further defines the types of mower.
Clippings come out to the side on some types or into a rear catcher on others. They can also be mulched.
Side discharge: works better on longer, rougher grass and on models with wider mowing decks. We’re told this is the most popular type of ride-on in New Zealand, with around 70 percent of the market. Most of our tested mowers are side discharge.
Rear-catcher models that discharge through a chute under the seat are less likely to clog on lush grass. They are a good choice for finer-quality large lawns. The wider models have twin blades that rotate in opposite directions to sweep the clippings through a central chute. Rear catching works better when the grass is dry and not over-long.
Look for models with more powerful engines for the same deck size compared to side discharge models, or narrower decks for similar-sized motors. Extra power for a given deck size helps catching performance. Rear-catcher models are generally more expensive when comparing similar-sized models.
When using a catcher it’s best to mow the lawns more often with a light cut – removing no more than 25mm at a time.
Side discharge models with a rear “bagger” attachment are said to be very prone to clogging when trying to cut heavy crops of lush grass. Cut as little as the height-adjustment will allow, in several passes and preferably when the grass is as dry as possible. An extra clippings blower can be fitted to some models. This helps to lift the clippings up the side-discharge chute.
Mulching is an option on many models, including both side-discharge and rear-catcher mowers. They can quite easily be converted to mulching mowers using a mulch-plug that holds the clippings inside the mowing deck, ensuring they are chopped up more finely and blown into the lawn.
Mulching can leave a very tidy finish to the lawn, as long as you don’t try to remove too much grass. Mowing several times taking 25-30mm at a time will often enable longer grass to be mowed to a tidy finish. If the engine struggles and the mower leaves large clumps you are taking too much off.
Some mowers need special mulching blades, so the blades have to be changed in order to mulch, while others have a combination blade that makes changing from side-discharge to mulching much easier.
Tip: If you plan to mulch, make sure your mower is supplied with a combination blade. It’s a good haggling point – ask for a mulching kit to be included in the price.
Buying a ride-on mower
Here’s what you should consider when shopping around for a ride-on mower. We’ve taken a look at pricing, size, weight and assorted features. We’ve also explained when you should test drive a mower before you buy.
Only pay for as much mower as you need. As a rule of thumb:
- Up to 4000m² (1 acre) of grass = a cutting-width of 1100mm (42”) and a 16-20HP (horse power) engine
- 4000m² to 1 hectare = up to 1200mm (48”) cutting-width and a 20-24HP engine
- Over 1 hectare = the largest cutting-width possible and at least a 24HP engine. If you expect to regularly mow longer grass, or do heavier mulching, make sure you choose an engine at the more powerful end of the range.
- Never use zero-turns with castors (free spinning front wheels) on anything but a gentle incline.
- If you want to drive your mower on slopes greater than 10° you’ll need a model with all-wheel drive and a locking differential, which costs several thousand dollars more than the two-wheel drive models we tested. Alternatively, consider a tow-behind mower if you’ve already got a four-wheel drive tractor or ATV.
Most retailers will deliver a few demo models to your section for a trial. We recommend trying both tractors and zero-turns – you might be surprised how much easier mowing is with a zero tracker. If you’re buying a tractor, make sure its turning circle is narrow enough to navigate your lawn’s obstacles or tight corners.
You can often talk down the sticker price. At the very least, ask them to throw in a mulching kit.
Features to consider
Single-cylinder engines are fine for mowing up to 1 hectare. Twin-cylinder engines – usually 16 horse power and greater – have more power, don’t have to work as hard and handle larger areas. They're also cooler running and are likely to last longer.
For straightforward mowing a manual transmission is a good budget choice. Where there's a lot of stopping and starting, working around trees or backing up an automatic/hydrostatic transmission will allow you to speed up, slow down and reverse without changing gears. You can even get cruise control on many modern tractor-type models, to make long mowing sessions more comfortable.
Most have 2 rotating blades to provide a cut of 950 to 1100 mm (38-42”). Wider cuts require 3 separate blades, but tests in the US by Consumer Reports found they don't cut as evenly so they're less suitable for lawns.
Offset cutting deck
This overhangs the line of the wheels on one side allowing you to mow along the edge of the lawn without falling into the garden, or to mow close to trees or buildings. It's a common feature.
Most domestic-use mowers have a pressed or stamped steel mowing deck, whereas commercial mowers have a deck that’s welded together out of heavier plate steel. You’ll pay more for a mower with a fabricated deck, but the thicker steel should ensure it lasts longer.
If you plan to do a lot of mulching choose a mower that has at least 10 height choices with 12mm (1/2”) increments or less. This makes it easier to set the right height for each mulching run.
This matters if you have awkward shapes to negotiate. Rear-steering models have a claimed “zero-turn radius” for easy manoeuvring. This means the mower leaves no grass uncut on the inside of the tightest circle that can be turned. Some tractor-style models now claim “zero-turn” capability.
Shut-off safety switch
A seat shut-off switch that stops the blades as you get off the mower is an essential safety feature. A shut-off switch for if you forget to engage the parking brake before hopping off is another good feature.
Reversing safety switch
This is an automatic feature that shuts off the blades or engine if you reverse while mowing. Most models have this, and many models also have an over-ride switch so you can mow in reverse. Look for the type that automatically goes back to safety mode when forwards-mowing starts again.
A diff-lock or 4-wheel drive will help the mower to climb slopes. But be careful not to mow across slopes that are any greater than the limits in the handbook.
Regular lubrication will prolong the life of moving parts, so if you don’t mind a bit of DIY, look for these features:
- an easy to access oil drain point and oil filter
- greasing points on the steering and the blade spindles.
Ease of use
A ride-on mower is definitely a “try before you buy” purchase. Some brands will give you a “right of return” for a short time if you're not satisfied. At least try a short spell of mowing to see whether you feel comfortable driving it. You should check:
- Is the seat cushioned for comfort with a back support?
- Are the controls easy to use?
- Is the steering wheel or steering lever/s at a comfortable height and angle for you?
- Can the controls and any foot pedals be reached without stretching?
- Is the seat easy to adjust so you can reach the controls? (This is important if different sized users will operate it.)
- Check how easy it is to remove, empty, and reattach the mulch-plug or catcher. Some have hydraulic catcher emptying.
- Wear hearing protection and safety glasses. In dusty conditions a dust mask is also advisable.
- Don’t use side-discharge mowers if other people, children or pets are nearby. Sticks and stones can be flung a considerable distance. Windows may be at risk even from some distance.
- Buy a model with a “seat shut-off switch” that stops the blades as you get off the mower or if you don’t set the park brake before hopping off.
- Keep off slopes, particularly on wet grass. Check the manual for slope limits.
- Avoid mowing in reverse – it's hard to see whether there are children or pets in the way. Choose a model with reversing safety features if you need to back up frequently.
- Check you can get on and off the mower without bumping into controls that might accidentally start the mower operating.
- Mowers with a rear-mounted grass catcher may need front weights to stop the front wheels lifting.
In order to keep your ride-on mower running well, you need maintain it properly.
Making it last
Domestic ride-on mowers are belt driven. The transmission and blades are connected to the motor by V-belts, which can get damaged by careless use. Be careful not to over-work the belts, particularly when mulching or mowing heavy grass. If the blades get jammed by an excess of clippings, the belts can get burned out in one place. This may cause vibration or a weak spot that will eventually break.
Keep the blades sharp. A keen cutting edge will give a cleaner finish and make mulching work better. An annual pre-season sharpen and service is recommended.
If you’re handy, a 100mm angle grinder will quickly restore a stone-damaged blade edge. Be careful not to take off too much metal and make sure you take the same amount from each end or the blade will go out of balance. You’ll need to remove the deck and then the blades to do this. It’s not difficult on most machines as you only need to take the drive belt off (it’s loose and slips off easily unless the PTO is engaged) and remove 3 or 4 spring clips or bolts to release the deck. The deck can then be slid out from under the machine.
More maintenance is required than for a standard mower. Consumer Reports says ride-on mowers are among the most repair-prone products it tests. So check out your retailer's after-sales service.
Maintenance is also something to consider when buying second-hand. Has it really been looked after?
Make sure you change the oil and oil-filter (where fitted), check and clean or replace the air filter, replace spark plugs and grease any greasable points at recommended intervals.
If you don’t want to do your own maintenance think about how you will get the mower back to the dealer. Dealers may be pleased to come and collect the machine and maintain it, but all this can add significantly to the running costs.
Ride on mowers typically have a pressed-steel mowing deck (the housing that covers the blades). Steel is vulnerable to rusting if you leave wet grass clumps under the deck. A washing port connects a garden hose to wash the underside of the deck (with the blades running), to help keep the deck free of damp grass.
Remove the mulch plug and clean around the opening. Damp grass often builds up here, and using the washing port won’t always remove it. Remove the deck so you can clean and dry it thoroughly before putting the mower into storage for long periods.
To prolong the life of your ride-on mower, keep it out of the weather – you'll need a covered space of around 1.2m x 1.8m.
Ride-ons are likely to sit in the shed for months at a time in dry summers or cold winters when the grass stops growing. Make sure you have an appropriate battery charger so you can charge it up or even keep it on trickle charge, so it’s ready to go when needed.
We've tested 12 ride-on mowers.
Find the right one for you.