A zero-turn mower's tightest turn can spin the machine in place — useful for working in small spaces.
Photo By Matthew T. Stallbaumer
If you have a lawn big enough to warrant a riding lawn mower, then one of these days you'll probably be in the market for a zero-turn mower. Since its invention in the early 1960s, the zero-turn riding lawn mower has gradually revolutionized the task of mowing grass. With zero-turn mowers available in all shapes and sizes, figuring out which one will work best for you can be a challenge. To help cut through the confusion, we assigned a team of 14 individual riders — all of them owners of suburban or rural properties with significant lawns — to test 27 different mower models representing 14 brands. We graded each mower for common variables, such as handling and ease of use, but we also measured how loud they were and their fuel consumption. For the testers’ evaluations of the mowers, see our Zero-Turn Mower Models chart. For complete specifications on each zero-turn mower see our Zero-Turn Mower Specifications chart.
Zero-Turn Mower Mechanics
Zero-turn mowers are faster, safer, more efficient and more comfortable than any other design. And they come in every size and capacity, suited to your particular situation. Whether you’re a suburban lawn geek with barely enough grass to justify a riding mower or a rural property owner maintaining acres of green around your homestead, the zero-turn mower will likely prove itself a better choice than any other lawn mower or tractor out there.
One reason zero-turn mowers excel at cutting grass is that they aren’t adaptable to any other chore. These machines are designed to mow your lawn safely and efficiently. Period.
The zero-turn mower generally has two drive wheels hydraulically controlled to spin independently. Turns are initiated when one wheel spins faster than the other, or in the opposite direction. The mower’s tightest turn spins the machine in place — literally, it can turn on a dime.
Mowers built with the zero-turn design have an exceptionally low center of gravity. Their wide tires are particularly easy on the turf. Hydraulic steering controls allow the operator to adjust speed minutely and steer with great precision — although our testers found the quality of the steering controls varied significantly from one mower to the next.
The History of Zero-Turn Mowers
Two different manufacturers claim to have invented the zero-turn mower — and they are both in rural central Kansas. According to Hustler Turf, John Regier of Moundridge, Kan., is credited with developing the first true zero-turn mower in 1964, with hydraulically controlled drive wheels designed to spin in either direction. He called his mower, quite appropriately, “The Hustler.” He sold his patent and design to a nearby tractor manufacturer, Excel Industries, which still manufactures Hustler mowers.
Grasshopper Mowers of Moundridge, Kan., also claims to have sold the first commercially viable zero-turn mower, and is also still in business building mowers in the small town where the machine was invented.
Coincidentally, Hustler and Grasshopper Mowers scored among the best zero-turn mowers tested by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS team. Grasshopper built the two mowers rated highest for overall quality, and Hustler built our “best buy,” as well as the first electric zero-turn mower on the market.
Testing the Machines
Not surprisingly, our scores generally corresponded to price. But not always. The Hustler FasTrak Super Duty struck us as a particularly good deal, with a suggested price tag of just over $7,500. The Grasshopper models we tested, while pricey, were also impressive machines.
Our testers graded the mower models as “Consumer,” “Commercial” or “Professional.” Commercial and Professional models generally had heavier components and engines with longer life spans. The smallest machines we tested weighed in at about 600 pounds. The biggest Commercial models tipped the scale at more than 1,600 pounds — as much as a small automobile. Surprisingly, they were not consistently more comfortable than the Consumer models.
Suggested retail prices ranged from a little more than $2,000 for a Craftsman mower (this model also got our lowest overall score) to almost $17,000 for a top-of-the-line Commercial model, the Exmark Lazer Z. Our top-rated mower, Grasshopper’s diesel-powered 725DT, carries a $16,300 price tag.
Tester Bill Uhler says he’ll never again base his purchases on price alone. “The variance in quality and comfort between each machine was much greater than the price. What appeared to be a great deal from a pricing aspect would’ve been a poor choice in value had the decision been made on pricing and features alone,” Uhler says. “Of course, without the comparison, most consumers would never be aware of this. So my major takeaway from this testing is to always test-drive multiple machines before making purchasing decisions — unless you truly want to adhere to the adage ‘ignorance is bliss.’”
In addition to the Hustlers and the Grasshoppers, our testers gave high marks to mowers from Toro, Land Pride, Exmark and Kubota. Intriguingly, the mower sent by Kubota was the only machine we tested that was powered with propane. We didn’t figure out a method for measuring fuel consumption on the propane model, but the idea of powering a mower with a nontoxic fuel produced as a byproduct of petroleum refining was an attractive prospect. The machine carried 65 pounds of propane fully loaded, which probably would have made it the champion for total running time on a single fueling.
All of the mowers except one are operated with two control arms, each of which controls a single set of drive wheels running them forward or backward. Cub Cadet, however, has a new line of mowers — its RZT S Series — that features four-wheel steering controlled by a steering wheel. It’s a completely different, completely new variation on the zero-turn theme, and may be much more comfortable for some operators accustomed to conventional riding mowers.
All of our testers ran every mower through the same obstacle course. Fuel consumption was measured with the mower deck engaged over the same terrain, the same distance and roughly the same amount of time.
The variation in fuel consumption was wide, from just 300 milliliters burned over the test circuit in the Hustler FasTrak Super Duty to 4,500 milliliters in the fuel-hungry Bush Hog R-754. We suspect there were variations in how the engines had been tuned, and that efficiency might be improved by a good mechanic.
There was disappointingly little variation in the noise levels of the mowers. Evidently, most of the noise is generated by the mower deck itself, so the electric Hustler Zeon’s nearly silent motor still created a 90-decibel noise level with the mower deck engaged. The noisiest mowers we tested didn’t generate more than 94 decibels.
Before You Choose
The biggest and most controversial difference between the zero-turn mowers was in their ease of operation and comfort. Every operator has his or her unique tastes, and our scores were all over the map. Some final advice: Find a trustworthy local dealer that can make suggestions on manufacturers and models, as well as help you with repairs and replacement parts. And ride a few mowers before choosing one. You’ll want to be comfortable.