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.
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.
Types of ride-on mowers
Tractor-type, zero-turn or rear-engine? We’ve explained what to consider, plus we’ve covered the different ways clippings can be fired out of a mower.
How we test ride-on mowers
Consumer isn't shy about putting the latest appliances through some real-life challenges as part of our product testing. Find out how we put the latest ride-on mowers through their paces.
- 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.