Smart Shopping: Lawn Mowers

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Regular mowing is as vital to a healthy lawn as watering, fertilizing, and weeding. A bumper crop of easier-starting mowers and wider-cutting tractors is trimming some of the work from this weekly ritual.

Most gas-powered mowers we tested now start with just one pull of the rope, and some $400 models now offer electric starting for another $40 or so. Corded electrics cut more capably than before, and cordless versions run longer per charge courtesy of better batteries. More lawn tractors cost well under $2,000 and offer wider, more-even mowing using two blades instead of three. You'll also find lower-priced zero-turn-radius riding mowers, which use rear-wheel steering for tight turns.

Cleaner gas engines are on the way as well. Despite the good news, some new designs and claims came up short in our weeks of tests over nearly 400,000 square feet of tough annual rye grass.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Mowing options range from $100 push mowers to $4,000-plus tractors and zero-turn-radius machines. Here's what you'll find:

Manual-reel mowers. These most traditional mowers are sold by McLane and Scotts, among other brands. They're quiet, inexpensive, and nonpolluting, since pushing them turns the wheels and a series of curved blades without an engine. They're also relatively safe and require little upkeep beyond blade adjustments and sharpening. But swaths are only 14 to 18 inches wide, cutting tends to be relatively uneven, and most can't cut grass higher than 11?2 inches or trim closer than 3 inches around obstacles. And because they don't disburse clippings like a rotary mower, you'll need a bag (or a rake) if you're fussy. Price: $100 to about $400.

Electric mowers. Major brands include Black & Decker, Craftsman (Sears), and Homelite, among others. These push-type, walk-behind mowers use an electric motor to drive a rotating blade. Both corded and battery-powered cordless models start with push-button ease, produce no exhaust emissions, and require little upkeep beyond sharpening. Most offer a side or rear bag and a mulching mode that cuts and recuts clippings until they're small enough to nestle within the lawn and fertilize it as they decompose. The best corded models perform as well as some gas mowers, and today's cordless models run longer per charge. But electrics, particularly cordless versions, still can't match the best gas mowers in tall or thick grass and weeds. Cordless mowers weigh up to 30 pounds more than corded models, and don't limit cutting to within range of a power outlet. Both typically cut 18- to 20-inch swaths vs. 21 and 22 inches for gas mowers. Price: corded, $125 to $250; cordless, $400 or more.

Gas-powered mowers. These free you from a cord and include push and self-propelled models. Most have a 4.5- to 6.5-hp four-stroke engine and a cutting swath 21 or 22 inches wide, and can handle long or thick grass and weeds. Most can also bag, side-discharge, or mulch clippings by cutting them small enough to hide within and help fertilize the lawn. But gas mowers are relatively noisy, produce exhaust emissions, and require regular maintenance. Price: push-type, $150 to $400; self-propelled, $200 to $900.

Lawn tractors. These front-engined machines are sold by Craftsman, Cub Cadet, John Deere, Husqvarna, and Toro, among others, and often cost less than yesterday's smaller, rear-engined riders. Most mow a swath 42 to 48 inches wide and can bag, mulch, and side-discharge clippings. Some offer four-wheel steering for tighter turns, and all accept snow throwers and other tools. But they create exhaust emissions and require a roughly 4x6-foot storage space. Bagging kits typically cost an extra $300 to $400, while other add-ons cost even more and are hard to install and remove. Price: $1,000 to $2,800; $3,000 to $3,500 for models with tight turning.

Zero-turn-radius mowers. These rear-engined, rear-steering riding mowers are similar to the ones landscapers use and typically mow a swath 42 to 48 inches wide. You would need a four-wheel-steer tractor to match their tight turns around trees, posts, and other obstacles. They also side-discharge, bag, and mulch clippings. But they're pricier than most tractors and typically don't cut as well. Tiller controls for steering and ground speed take practice, and steering on hills can be challenging. Rear-steering wheels can tear up grass on turns. You'll also pay some $400 to $800 for a bagging kit. Price: $2,700 to $4,000 for most homeowner versions.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

For electric and gas mowers
A sliding-clip cord keeper or a flip-over handle eases turns for corded mowers. One-lever height adjustment lets you raise and lower the entire deck at once, while a blade-brake clutch on gas-powered mowers stops only the blade when you release the handlebar safety bail, eliminating the need to restart the engine. An overhead-valve engine tends to run more efficiently than a side-valve engine. Many gas mowers include a rubber primer bulb that supplies added fuel for cold starts, and some have an automatic choke that shuts off after the engine starts. An electric starter eliminates the need to pull-start a gas engine. Some self-propelled gas-powered mowers have several speeds or infinite drive speeds, typically from 1 to 31?2 mph. Rear-wheel-drive models tend to have better traction on hills than front-drive models, especially when their bag is full. Models with swivel front wheels allow easy 180-degree turns, but can be tricky on hills. Some mowers offer corrosion-proof aluminum or plastic decks. Most models now allow tools-free mode changes. Mowers with a rear bag tend to cost more, but the bag tends to hold more than side bags and eases maneuvering.

For tractors and zero-turn mowers
Gear-drive models must be shifted between ground-speed ranges; models with automatic drive vary ground speed infinitely via a hydrostatic transmission or other system. Four-wheel steering lets tractors turn nearly as tightly as zero-turn machines. A safety switch for reverse helps avoid mishaps by making you engage it before mowing in reverse. An electric power takeoff switch lets you avoid pulling a lever to engage the blades. Some models also let you switch mowing modes without changing blades. A translucent fuel tank or a fuel gauge eases fuel-level checks, while cupholders are an added convenience on many models. Cruise control locks in a ground speed. A high-back seat adds support and comfort, while a washout port accepts a hose for clearing clippings beneath the deck. Also convenient: an hour meter, which shows how long the engine has run between oil changes and other maintenance.

HOW TO CHOOSE Here's what else to consider as you shop for a mower or tractor:

Choose the right kind. Decide which type -- manual-reel mowers, gas or electric mower, lawn tractor, or zero-turn-radius mower -- best matches your lawn. Then choose one that is especially adept at bagging, side-discharging, or mulching clippings if that's the mode you prefer.

Don't pay extra for big names. You'll find a Honda engine in lawn mowers from Craftsman, Lawn-Boy, Yard-Man, and other brands that use Honda's premium image to gain added cachet. These newer engines aren't the commercial-grade versions that made Honda's reputation for durability, however. Those we tested performed well, but so did more-plebeian brands.

Don't count horses. Higher horsepower doesn't necessarily mean higher-quality mowing. Some manufacturers have swapped horsepower numbers for engine-size and torque specifications, but even those don't guarantee better results.
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