Summer Preview
By Scott Packard
on 5.8.13

In the suburban jungle, a man’s lawn is a measure of his domestic domain — and as always, the right tools are the key to mastery. Stepping up from a push mower to a lawn tractor is a big decision, but one that doesn’t need vast yard acreage for justification; a lack of suitable minions and the time savings gained (better spent with your pals or the family) should be sufficient arguments to sway your fence-sitting.

Though you might dream about dropping lotto-winning cash on one (in which case, see our final bonus entry), the truth is that you don’t need to spend more than $2k for a mower that you can captain with pride. Whether you plan on doing your best Bill Murray (Caddyshack, not Lost in Translation) impression on your own personal links, or hope to trim a more modest green acres, we’ve got the riding mower for you.

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Troy-Bilt Pony

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Best Entry-Level Tractor: If you’re skeptical whether your postage stamp needs a tractor, the Pony is a small price bump from a quality push mower like the Husqvarna AWD and perfect for small- to medium-sized plots. Moreover, it’s simple to operate, with a 7-speed Shift-on-the-Go transmission that requires no clutching or stopping to engage. More evidence of ease of use: it has a cup holder. While the Pony’s small 17.5-hp Briggs and Stratton engine lacks the big power of some of our other options, its light weight allows this mower to handle most lawns without problem. A bagging kit is sold separately, though at $300, it’s a steep add-on to this inexpensive choice. The Pony’s only major drawback is the inability to cut in reverse — not a bad limitation for beginners.

Craftsman 28852

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Best Big Cropper: The YT3000’s bigger engine (21 hp) and a bigger cutting deck (46 inches) makes short work of your personal sod farm. The range of deck height adjustability, from 1.5 to 4 inches, and a 6-inch turning radius, tightest its in class, allows this mower to go over or around pretty much any yard obstacles. But the Craftsman is really at home on wide-open expanses, with extra-wide 9-inch wheels to prevent tire marking and “cruise” control for sustained mowing. However, a single cylinder at this horsepower means uncomfortable vibration. That’s not a problem for quick jobs (most, for this baby), but it’ll take a step up price-wise to get you a counter-balancing second piston.

Husqvarna YTH22V46

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Most Compact Cutter: This 46-inch, 22-horsepower model takes a bigger bite and maintains premium cut quality with two extra-large blades. Cutting is especially even in all three mowing modes, and handling this Husqvarna proves especially easy. Other pluses include an infinitely variable drive system, which lets you vary speed smoothly without shifting, a high-back seat, a comfortable steering wheel, and the fact that it’s the lightest mower on our list (and relatively compact) at 434 pounds. There are also some minuses: There’s no electric-power takeoff to engage the blades — you’ll have to pull a lever — and you can’t check the fuel level without leaving the seat.

Cub Cadet LTX 1045

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Best High Mobility Conventional: The Cub Cadet gets into the creases and cracks of those lawns with lots of curves and tight spaces where maneuverability is a key capability. A hydrostatic drive, manipulated with large foot pedals, and an interlock for cutting in reverse that’s clearly marked make the necessary transitions between forward and backward mowing much easier and smoother than most other tractors. The cutting deck leaves a smooth swath behind, creating the temptation to turn the front yard into a putting green — if it weren’t for that one neighbor who insists on letting his pride and joy relieve itself on your pride and joy.

John Deere D110

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Best Green Machine: The color is iconic, and 19.5 hp allows this riding mower to bound across high grass fields with no stutter to its step. Its hydrostatic drive transmission provides a continuous drive with no shifting — the harder you press the pedal the faster you go. Galloping up to 5.5 mph in forward and 3.2 in reverse, its speed makes up for the limited agility of an 18-inch circle, the only drawback of a wide stance that gives stability on modest inclines. It’s a feature-packed beast, and for a little extra dough you get a reliable machine backed by John Deere resale.

Bonus Bank-Breaker: Exmark Lazer Z DS -Series

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Best for Starting Your Own Yard Maintenance Business: You can only claim you need this if you’re sitting on 2.5+ acres and don’t employ an in-house yard crew. There are times — like when the lawn is ginormous and the grass is swaying in the breeze — that only a diesel will do. For those jobs, there’s the Lazer Z DS-Series. This is heavy-duty grass sado-masochism with a bullet-proof Kubota liquid-cooled diesel engine matched to a 72-inch cutting deck. When you’re using the cutter employed by city maintenance crews, your back nine is in good hands.

You’ll cut with precision and efficiency, and it’ll be done using a deck that won’t offend your tree-hugging neighbors: a biodiesel-ready engine that produces reduced emissions and has minimal environmental impact. At 12 MPH, this is the Formula One racer of lawn tractors. Even in reverse the Exmark will beat the rest, mowing at speedy 8 MPH. Buckle up.

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