The Best Lawnmower
If you’re mowing less than half an acre of lawn, the best lawn mower for your grass-cutting needs is the self-propelled, gas-powered Honda HRX217K5VKA ($600). After 40 hours of research and conversations with two landscapers, two service outlets, and Roy Berendsohn of Popular Mechanics (who has been testing and evaluating lawn mowers for more than 20 years), we found that the quality, reliability, and features of the Honda—as well as its unique ability to balance how much grass is mulched and bagged—justify the steep price tag. This model is an updated version of our 2014 pick with a new control system that makes it easier to run the mower at a constant speed.
The Honda currently has the top spot in the epic Consumer Reports rundown and ranks very highly in Popular Mechanics’ tests as well. It has a large 190cc engine, rear-wheel drive to help traverse tall grass or hills, and a two-blade cutting system that leaves, as Berendsohn put it, “a velvet finish.” It also comes with a nearly indestructible (and fully warrantied) composite mowing dome. It can bag, side-discharge, or mulch whatever it’s cutting. If anything does go wrong with the machine, it has an industry-leading 5-year warranty that’s nearly twice as long as what you get with most other mowers.
What really separates this mower from the pack is the Versamow feature, unique to Honda’s HRX line. This lets you control the balance of clippings that you mulch and bag, so you can dial in the ratio depending on conditions. It’s great when you’re mowing tall or wet grass, because you can bag enough grass to keep the mulch from being too thick and clumpy. It’s also very useful for fall clean-up because it forces leaves to stay in the mowing dome until they’re fully shredded and deposited in the bag. As one user told us, “The mower has virtually replaced raking entirely.”
For the 2015 season, Honda has updated the HRX line of mowers, including our pick. The changes have to do entirely with the drive control interface. With the new system, called the Select Drive, you no longer have to apply constant pressure to the control paddles to maintain a speed—it’s more like cruise control. It is also worth noting that Honda has not changed the model number of their updated mower, so if you’re considering a purchase of the Honda, just make sure that you’re getting the one with the Select Drive controls.
Not everyone really needs to spend $600 on a lawnmower, though. If our main pick becomes unavailable or is simply too expensive for you, we recommend the Toro Recycler 20333 ($500) as a runner-up choice. It costs less than the Honda and comes with several of the same features, like intuitive self-propulsion and excellent mulching performance.
One thing the Toro includes that you won’t find on the Honda is a blade brake clutch. This allows you to stop the blade but keep the mower running, which is useful, say, to move some toys or a branch out of the mowing path. However, there’s no Versamow here, so you’re either fully mulching or bagging. And while the Toro did well in the Consumer Reports and Popular Mechanics testing, no one put it on the same pedestal as the Honda—especially when it comes to reliability.
If you’d rather not deal with the seasonal maintenance and exhaust associated with gas-powered engines, we have a new recommendation for 2015: The battery-powered EGO LM2001 56-Volt Cordless Lawn Mower ($500). There’s no doubt it’s an expensive mower, but it has a very good reputation for easy handling, compact storage, and strong power. It is well-liked by both professional reviewers and those who have already purchased it. The downside is that the battery only offers about 45 minutes of mowing time (but with a relatively short 30 minute charging time), so it’s best for lawns about a quarter of an acre or so.
If your lawn is less than half an acre and you’re after a bare-bones, basic mower, a good choice is the Lawn-Boy 10732 ($280). It’s a no-frills model liked by the testers at Popular Mechanics, who tried it firsthand and gave it a “best buy” designation, noting its simple, intuitive operation and surprisingly strong mowing performance for its size. It’s on the low end of the price scale, but it does have self-propelled rear-wheel drive, which is a nice benefit. Consumer Reports tested a nearly identical mower (Lawn-Boy 10734) and found its handling, bagging, and side discharge capabilities to be adequate. The CR test also has Lawn-Boy at the middle of the pack in brand reliability ratings (Honda has the top spot), and the Lawn-Boy has a 2-year full warranty (with a 3-year guarantee to start easily) while Honda offers a full warranty for 5 years—so don’t expect the level of reliability you’d get with our top pick.
We also have a recommendation for a simple gas push mower, the Cub Cadet SC100 11A-A92J710 ($250), for smaller, flat lawns, up to about a third of an acre. This low-cost, well-made model is so popular it sells out every season. It lacks self-propulsion, but it does have other features—easy handling, a premium engine, and a washout port to keep the mowing dome clean.
A note on our 2015 update: Previously, the Ariens 911177 ($460) shared the runner-up spot with the Toro Recycler. But the Ariens scored slightly below the Toro in the Consumer Reports run-down, and it happens to cost $60 more now, so we decided to stay with the Toro—which also makes sense for shoppers comparing against the Honda since they’re both sold at Home Depot. Our 2014 guide also had two budget picks, the Snapper SP70 ($280) and the Lawn-Boy 10732 ($280). We condensed this to a single budget pick and chose the rear-wheel-drive Lawn-Boy over the front-wheel-drive Snapper because our expert sources all strongly prefer rear-wheel-drive machines.
Table of Contents
- Why you should listen to us
- Features your mower needs to have
- Our pick
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- Long-term test notes
- Budget mower
- Cordless mower
- Also great: the best gas push mower
- Reel mowers
- Care and maintenance
- The competition
Why you should listen to us
Over the past two lawnmowing seasons, we’ve totaled about 40 hours researching mowers, interviewing experts, and testing some of our top picks. To help us wade through the seemingly endless features and models of mowers available, we started with Roy Berendsohn, the resident lawnmower guru at Popular Mechanics. Berendsohn has been writing about and testing lawn mowers for 20 years and, as his former colleague (and Sweethome editor) Harry Sawyers told me, “[Berendsohn] has more info than you could possibly need, and he is seriously one of the most seasoned industry experts you could consult.” It’s worth noting that many of the lawn mower articles that Berendsohn didn’t write, he was interviewed for (see here, here, here, and here). It’s difficult to overstate his credibility when it comes to lawn mowers.
I also spoke with two full-time landscapers: Chad Crosby of West Michigan Lawn Services and Paul Kohler of Koehler Landscape Construction Services, Inc. In addition, I spent some time the phone with two different lawnmower retail/service outlets: Nick Ortiz at Kellam Lawn Mower in Glen Mills, PA, and David [last name withheld] of Boston Lawnmower Company. Beyond these interviews, I read everything I could online, paying the closest attention to Consumer Reports’s mega rundown of walk-behind mowers (subscription required) and Berendsohn’s massive collection of articles over at Popular Mechanics. John Neff, Wirecutter’s car editor (and former editor-in-chief of Autoblog), was a key source of technical info on engines and other details. He helped us test our pick in the 2014 version of the story and tested Honda’s new 2015 model this past summer.
Features your mower needs to have
Before we get into the details, it’s important to note that lawn mowers come in a wide variety of flavors with a wide variety of features. Husqvarna alone has 13 different gas-powered walk-behind mowers listed at its site. Toro has a whopping 24. Many features are specific to certain lawn and terrain conditions. To cover their bases, most manufacturers offer mowers with different feature combinations to make sure that they’re going to have a model that will work for your particular lawn.
After 40 hours spent researching and interviewing experts, we concluded that that ideal mower for most lawns under half an acre in size is a self-propelled model with rear-wheel drive coupled with a variable speed control. It should also have three options for disposing of clippings: side discharge, bag, and mulch. Other nice features to have are a blade brake clutch, which allows you to stop the blade but keep the mower running, and a washout port to easily clean the underside of the cutting dome.
The lawn mower buying guides at Lowe’s and Home Depot consider half an acre of lawn (21,780 square feet) to be the upper limit of a walk-behind mower. The guide at Briggs & Stratton bumps it up to three-quarters of an acre, but that’s almost 33,000 square feet, and unless you really enjoy your time spent mowing your lawn, we think it’s that’s too big. If you’re much above half an acre, it’s worth considering the benefits of a ride-on mower.
For anyone with a small-enough lawn for a walk-behind mower, self-propelled designs are very easy to handle because the drive wheels move the machine forward, so all you have to do is steer and not push. Berendsohn, in a mower guide at Popular Mechanics, recommends self-propelled mowers (as opposed to a basic push mower) for any lawn bigger than 4,000 square feet. According to the buying guide at Husqvarna, for every quarter acre (10,890 square feet) that you mow, you’ll be walking 1-2 miles. That’s quite a distance, and you’ll appreciate the mower pulling its own weight.
All of the landscapers and service/retail guys I spoke with said that they recommend rear-wheel drive (RWD) over front-wheel drive (FWD), mostly due to the superior traction Crosby told us that he has “never used anything with front drive.” FWD is cheaper, but ultimately, we think RWD offers enough benefits to justify its roughly $40-$50 premium (as an example, the rear-wheel Husqvarna HU700L goes for about $380 while the nearly identical front-wheel HU700F is $340). While no one likes to pay more, the feature makes a huge difference.
If you bag your grass, RWD is a much better option. As the bag gets filled with clippings, the weight of the mower starts to shift toward the rear, which actually increases the ability of the rear wheels to gain traction. (On a FWD mower, this same situation lifts weight off of the drive tires and makes them less effective at pulling the machine.) It’s also easier for a RWD mower to get traction on hills and inclines, and according to Ortiz, the wheels can grip better if you hit a patch of thick grass.
Looking through landscaping and mowing forums, some say that rear-wheel mowers are easier to keep in a straight line, and others like the fact that they can propel across a hump or a driveway while tipped back with the front wheels raised, preventing scalping the turf or damage to the blade.
For making quick 180-degree pivots, like at the end of a mowing line, it’s crucial to pair the rear-wheel drive with a variable speed control. To do this move, you usually push down on the handle, lift the front wheels, and turn. FWD mowers can easily do the maneuver, but a RWD mower that keeps advancing makes it awkward—however, you can do it with a RWD model as long as you have full control over the mower’s speed. Once you get used to it, you’ll be able to lay off the gas, pivot the mower, and then quickly accelerate. John Neff has been using a RWD Honda for 3 years and is a former owner of a FWD Troy-Bilt. He told us that he didn’t think there was a huge difference in maneuverability between the two systems.
Many mowers have two modes of clipping disposal (bag and side discharge), but Berendsohn says he prefers those with an additional mulch feature. Mulching slices and dices the grass clippings into very small shreds and leaves them on the cut grass to compost. According to Berendsohn, “I spend most of my time in mulch mode but I do resort to side discharge if grass is high or wet, or if I’m mowing down weeds and doing utility-type mowing.” He added that, “Otherwise, I’m not a big fan of bagging. Mulching puts clippings (and their nitrogen) back into the lawn.” A rundown of the benefits of mulching at Honda’s website noted that, “If you live in a municipality that charges extra fees to landfill yard waste, mulching will also save you money.”
Another nice (expensive) feature is a blade brake clutch. This allows you to shut the blade off and step away from the mower without shutting off the engine. It’s nice if you need to empty your bag of grass or if you have to move some lawn furniture or a fallen branch out of the way. If you have kids, then you probably already understand the benefits of not having to stop your mower to rescue a half-buried Optimus Prime action figure. Paul Kohler, one of the landscapers we spoke with, even told me that he thinks at some point this might end up being a standard feature on mowers. But for now, you can expect to pay about an extra $100 for it.
A washout port is another nice feature—this is a small hose connection on the top of the mowing dome. After every few mowings, you connect a garden hose and run both the hose and the mower for a couple minutes. This sprays water into the spinning blades and removes all the grass clumps and debris from the underside of the machine. As this article on mower maintenance says, grass buildup in the cutting dome messes with the airflow and makes the mower less efficient.
Manufacturers will try to wow you with the size and make of the engine. But for normal conditions, it doesn’t really matter too much. Both Berendsohn and Consumer Reports warned against getting too caught up in the numbers. Berendsohn told us that, “engines generally range from 159 to 190cc. Frankly, any of these work.” Consumer Reports agreed. In this video they said, “higher power, often measured in torque, is no indication of higher cutting performance.” Berendsohn did include the caveat that if you’re going to be doing a lot of mowing in extreme situations (heavy weeds; tall, wet grass; or leaf mulching) then it’s worth it to shoot for the upper side of the engine spectrum.
One thing to know about engines is that an overhead-valve engine (OHV) is preferred over the less expensive side-valve engine. According to this article at Consumer Reports, as it gets older, an overhead-valve engine will be “less likely to give you trouble. Because overhead-valve engines have a more efficient design (cleaner for the environment), the use less gas and leave fewer carbon deposits, which can wear down any engine over time. They also tend to run more quietly.”
There are two primary engine manufacturers: Honda and Briggs & Stratton. (Subaru, Kawasaki, and Kohler, among others, also make engines, but they are nowhere near as prevalent in the US.) Honda engines have long been OHV; Briggs offers both side-valve and OHV. The general consensus among the retailers and landscapers is that Honda engines are better because they’re a little quieter and more reliable, but they’re also a little more expensive. But Berendsohn felt that the differences between the manufacturers are a matter for the professional users and not homeowners. He told us, “Bottom line: Briggs, Kohler, and Honda engines are all great for homeowner purposes, but you have to take care of them.”
When it comes to wheels, regular-sized rear wheels and non-pivoting front wheels will do just fine for most people. But larger rear tires and pivoting front wheels are an option, and each have advantages and drawbacks. Mowers with oversized rear tires are best for rough and bumpy terrain. The tradeoff, according to Consumer Reports, is that they’re harder to maneuver, specifically when making a quick 180-degree turn. Pivoting front wheels increase the turning ability of the mower, but they’re harder to adjust, not very good on hills, a little trickier on a straight line, and, according to Consumer Reports, the wheels extend out from the front of the mower, preventing it “from cutting close up against foundations and walls.” If your yard is a maze of high-precision turns and pirouettes, then the pivot wheels are worth investigating.
If you’re considering replacing an older machine, the strongest argument for upgrading is if your current mower doesn’t have a mulching function. Mulching slices and dices the clippings into very small pieces, leaving them on the grass to decompose and feed your soil. It’s not only good for your lawn, but also has other benefits—unlike bagging, it doesn’t require you to stop and unload the bag while you mow. And unlike side-discharging, mulching doesn’t force you to rake up big grass clumps on your lawn. Mulching feeds your lawn as you go, and you don’t even have to find a place to pile your grass clippings when you’re finished.
According to our research and interviews and testing, the mower to get for most lawns under half an acre is the Honda HRX217K5VKA. (If you have a lawn larger than half an acre, consider getting a riding mower.) At $600, there is no doubt that it’s on the expensive side, but all indications say that it is worth the cost both in performance and long-term durability. The Honda not only took the top spot at Consumer Reports, but is also well-liked by Berendsohn, who called it “the luxury car of walk-behind mowers.” The Honda has rear-wheel drive, a powerful 190cc engine, and a two-blade cutting system, so it not only offers great traction, but it can tackle tall, thick grass with no problems. While most high-end mowers can bag, side discharge, and mulch, the Honda can also shred leaves to the point that it can replace raking entirely. It also comes with a nearly indestructible (and fully warrantied) composite mowing dome.
All of these features are enough to set a mower apart from the pack, but what really launches the Honda into new territory is the unique Versamow system. Versamow, simply put, lets you control how much grass is being bagged and how much is being mulched. It does this via a 10-position toggle that adjusts the opening between the mowing dome and the bag opening. On other mulching mowers, the dome is either completely open or completely closed off, so 100 percent of the grass gets bagged or mulched. But with Versamow, for example, you can set one-third to be bagged and two-thirds to be mulched, which really helps you respond to your yard’s conditions to make mowing easier.
For example, If your grass is too wet or too tall, the blades can get overwhelmed and your mulch comes out as a bunch of annoying clumps on the lawn. Versamow lets you distribute your clippings between bagging and mulching, so you can still produce decent mulch and minimize how much grass you have to bag up and dump. Do it right, and you won’t have to go back with a rake to clean up a clumpy mess all over the yard.
In the fall, this also gives the mower the ability to shred leaves. The leaf-shredding feature may sound like a minor thing, but it’s actually effective enough to replace a leaf blower, which can cost hundreds of dollars. According to Honda (and confirmed by Neff), if you set the mower at a certain spot between bag and full-mulch, it forces the leaves to stay in the mowing dome longer, which completely shreds them and sends them back into the lawn or disposes of them in the bag.
Neff elaborated on the benefits of this process: “In the fall, I use the Honda to mulch the leaves into the grass as far as I can into the fall season. When the leaf cover gets too thick, I switch to half mulch and half bag, and eventually I use the mower to pick up all the leaves and bag them. The Honda mower has virtually replaced raking entirely for me.”
Starting in 2015, the model comes with a new driving control setup called the Select Drive. This replaces the two-pronged paddle setup that controlled the mower in its previous model year (which was our pick for the best lawnmower in this story’s 2014 version). Neff has tested out both systems and told us that each has its benefits and drawbacks. “The new system allows you to set a speed that matches your stride, but you can still use your hands to vary the speed manually a little bit, like when you’re approaching a tree. With the old system, your hands, and how much pressure you put on those plastic wings, determined the mower speed at all times.”
On the Select Drive, the maximum speed is set with a dial which in turn limits how much movement is possible with the speed control. Neff found that the max speed of the Honda is “much too fast for normal people” and his ideal setting was “only right above where the minimum setting ends on the dial.” That said, “the new controls, especially with the top speed set lower to right above the minimum, don’t give you a lot of travel to work with. That means you’re basically stopped or going at your selected max speed. The old controls, because their top speed was always the mower’s top speed, let you use the entire travel of the controls to manually select your speed at any given time, the trade-off being you had to hold it there with your palms or thumbs.”
Neff “prefer[s] it slightly over my 2014, though not so much that I think anyone who bought the 2014 model should be envious. There are good and bad points to both, and if you’ve already learned to live with the 2014 model’s controls, you’re just fine. Honda addressed the complaints about comfort for the 2014 model, but in doing so sacrificed some of the mower’s finely tuned controls.”
Honda has a video of the Select Drive here.
Some of the Honda’s features are things you’d find on other high-end mowers. For example, it’s a rear-wheel drive machine. As our landscapers told us, this gives it much better traction on hills and inclines. It is also a key feature if you bag your grass. As the bag fills, the center of gravity shifts to the back, which actually increases the traction of the tires (on a FWD mower, this weight shift would try to pull the drive tires off the ground).
The composite deck is a nice detail that helps ensure a long-lasting mower. Most mowers have steel or aluminum decks that dent on impact, but in this same situation, the Honda will only flex. It also can’t rust, and it’s less prone to getting gummed up with clippings. The deck also has a lifetime warranty on it, and if you’re not convinced that it’s a durable item, Honda has a video of it being run over by a car here.
Most mowers have a single blade, but the Honda has two. This doubles the amount of cutting edges and results in a lawn that, as Berendsohn put it, has a “velvet finish.” With the two blades, the Honda cuts grass into smaller pieces than the competition, which leads to better mulching (because smaller pieces decompose quicker) and more efficient bagging (you can fit more grass per bag).
As for long-term durability, Consumer Reports stated that the premium Honda engine, “is likely to run more efficiently and start more easily than traditional side-valve engines for years to come.” In general terms, they refer to Honda as, “among the least repair-prone for self-propelled mowers.” If something does go wrong, Honda also offers a long 5-year warranty for this mower (and the others in this model’s family, the HRX line). On top of that is a limited lifetime warranty that covers the composite mower deck. The warranties of most other mowers top out at 2 or 3 years.
At Home Depot, last year’s version of the Honda (which is identical in all ways except the control system) has a high 4.5-star average based on 397 reviews, with 89 percent of the reviewers recommending the mower. Most comments praised the tool for its reliable start (normally on the first pull). There was also a lot of discussion on the high price, but in the end, most of the commenters said that the overall quality of the mower justifies the high cost.
The sense that I had after completing my research was that Honda mowers deliver a consistently high level of quality. So if the specifics of this one don’t match up with your needs, any of the others are likely to be very solid mowers, ranging from this basic push mower ($350) to this $850 model. The number two spot in the Consumer Reports rating was another Honda, the HRR216K9VLA ($500). This is similar to our recommended mower, but it’s part of the HRR line and not the HRX line, so it doesn’t have Versamow or a composite deck, and its warranty is only 3 years as opposed to 5. HRRs also have a less powerful engine (160cc) and a different blade design, which translates into slightly poorer mulching ability. Our pick is actually the least expensive of the five mowers in the HRX line.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Even at its high price, the Honda is not a perfect machine, and there are a few features that it is missing.
First, Neff reports that the speed control dial can vibrate down to a lower speed when used on a bumpy lawn. “Once I realized what was happening, it happened less because I would keep an eye on it.” Neff said.
Secondly, the Honda HRX217K5VKA doesn’t have a blade brake clutch, which gives you the ability to stop the blade but keep the engine running. With this feature, if you need to step away from the mower, say to empty a bag of clippings or to move some lawn furniture out of the way, you won’t need to restart the engine when it’s time to get back to mowing.
This is certainly a nice option to have, but it’s an expensive one—it usually adds anywhere from $80 to $100 to the price of a mower, which gets into a price range that’s tougher to justify for residential use. If you need this feature, go for Honda’s HRX217HYA ($730), which is similar to our pick, but has the blade brake system and a different control setup. The user feedback at Home Depot is very good (an average of 4.7 stars with 583 reviews), but the speed control is not integrated into the handle as well as the HRX217K5VKA. We feel you can live without the blade brake clutch, because the Honda engine is known for its smooth and easy starting ability. Even if you have to stop occasionally, you’re unlikely to have a problem restarting it, especially once the mower is warmed up.
Third, if you want to change the cutting height, the adjustment needs to be done individually at each wheel. If you have areas of your lawn that you like to cut to different heights, this process may feel tedious. The majority of mowers have this same four-point adjustment, but some, like our Lawn-Boy budget pick, have a two-point system (front wheels, rear wheels). Our cordless pick, the 56-Volt EGO reduces that even further to a single adjustment point.
While it would certainly be nice to have a one- or two-point adjustment, it’s definitely not something worth losing sleep over. As long as the adjustment is easy (as it is on the Honda), it will only take a couple more moments to change the cutting height. And really, how often are you actually changing the cutting height? I’ve been pretty fussy about the look of my own lawn, but once I zeroed in on a height that I liked, I haven’t changed it since. Neff has had a slight issue with the wheel adjustment on his 2014 model—one rear wheel has become difficult to raise, especially at the end of the mowing season when changing the blade height for fall leaves. We’ll update once we test a 2015 model and see if the design has changed or if that was a problem particular to his unit.
The mower also lacks a washout port, which provides an easy way to hose off the underside of the mowing deck. Without it, you’ll be doing things the old-fashioned way: Tipping the mower back and spraying it down (oh, and safety first—turn the mower off beforehand). To Honda’s credit, the composite deck is going to be a little less likely to attract grass clumping (and it won’t rust), but there’s no doubt that you’ll still have to maintain the cleanliness yourself.
In the end, these missing features are nice to have, but they don’t change the actual performance of the mower. With the accolades that the Honda mowers have received at both Consumer Reports and Popular Mechanics, as well as the excellent customer feedback, we felt confident we could recommend it, even if getting down to this price point does cut out a couple of convenient features.
Long-term test notes
Neff just wrapped up his third summer with his Honda mower and he reports no problems with it so far. He has the earlier version with the paddle handles, but in all other respects, they’re the exact same machines. Neff reports that the engine still starts on the first or second pull. Aside from changing the oil every year and changing the air filter once, “in terms of repairs, I’ve had no issues at all with it.” He continued, “the wheels still have good rubber tread on them, and the engine seems bullet-proof so far. The drive controls also work as well as they did on the first day.”
If you want a mower with all of the recommended convenience features, including the blade brake system and the washout port, we recommend the Toro 20333 Recycler ($500). It’s about $100 less than our main pick and, by most accounts, is a worthy mower, getting high marks from both Consumer Reports and Berendsohn. But in the end, it just doesn’t have the finesse of the Honda (or the Versamow feature). Also, the user feedback doesn’t have the overwhelming positives that the Honda has, lending credence to the “you get what you pay for” thing.
One of the main selling points of the Toro is its unique control system called the Personal Pace. In a nutshell, the variable-speed mower adjusts to how fast you’re walking based on the tilt of the control bar. If you’re walking fast, you’ll naturally be pressing it slightly forward, and if you’re walking slower, you’ll be pulling it back. It takes a little getting used to, but based on the customer feedback, most users are satisfied with how it works.
Consumer Reports rated it highly and praised it for its value, commenting that it was an excellent mulcher, but the bagging and side discharge were a “notch below the best, but were still impressive.” This mower can also handle leaves, but unlike the Honda, you’ll always be in either full bag or full mulch mode, which gives less flexibility in a thicker bed of leaves.
Berendsohn, reviewing the Toro 20332 (the same model, but without the blade brake) wrote, “Toro’s engineers designed a mower that suits a variety of users and mowing conditions.” He also noted the extensive feature selection and called a “value-packed product.”
The Toro has a 190cc Briggs & Stratton side valve engine and comes with a 2-year warranty that fully covers everything “under normal use and maintenance.” So in order to hold the warranty, it is very important that you closely follow the service instructions provided by the manual. The mower also has a 3-year “guarantee to start” which states that “if it doesn’t start in two pulls, we’ll fix it for free.”
The user feedback at Home Depot is solid, with the mower getting an average of 4.1 stars from 1,706 reviews with 84 percent recommending the mower.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
While the comments at Home Depot are quite positive, the Toro doesn’t fare so well at Amazon (2.3-star average with 72 reviews) or Consumer Reports (2.9 with 169 reviews). These negative reviews are a laundry list of mechanical failures and warranty problems. One that was repeated a few times is that the engine guzzles oil and once it runs empty, the engine seizes up. It’s noted that the manual says to check the oil before each mow, so apparently Toro doesn’t cover it under the warranty.
But one thing worth considering that may explain these overwhelmingly negative comments is that Amazon doesn’t realistically sell the Toro mower and Consumer Reports (obviously) doesn’t either. Amazon used to offer it through a third-party seller for the bizarre and completely unrealistic price of $800, but now it’s not even available. With that in mind, it’s likely that most of the reviewers have purchased it elsewhere, had a bad experience, and are looking for a place to vent, as well they should with an underperforming item.
On the other hand, Home Depot actually sells the mower (and sends an email requesting feedback after the purchase), so it seems likely that they would have a better representation of the overall customer experience with the mower, positives as well as negatives. There, the $360 Toro 20332 (the same as the 20333 but minus the blade brake clutch), has a 3.9-star average rating with more than 1,800 reviews. The Toro isn’t perfect, and there are valid points raised at Amazon or Consumer Reports (like, check your oil!). But the ratings breakdown at Home Depot is a much larger sampling and is likely a more realistic representation of the mower. This interpretation also falls in line with the Consumer Reports manufacturer reliability graph, which says that for every 100 Toro self-propelled lawn mowers, 17 needed some kind of repair or had a serious problem (Honda scored the lowest with 11).
Last, the Toro has a side-valve engine. These are less efficient and more prone to longterm wear when compared to overhead-valve engines (like the Honda has). As Berendsohn told us, engine maintenance is crucial to any mower, so it’s certainly not something to let slide with the Toro.
If you’re on a tight budget and are looking for a decent rear-wheel-drive, self-propelled, variable-speed mower for less than $300, we suggest the Lawn-Boy 10732 ($280). In his rear-wheel-drive piece, Berendsohn gave a nearly identical Lawn-Boy his “best buy” designation, calling it “a delightfully simple, light, basic mower.” He added that he was “pleasantly surprised by how fast and effective it is despite its small Kohler engine.”
Unlike the Honda and the Toro, it doesn’t have any sort of innovative drive control mechanism. Instead, it comes with the basic standard bail (the metal bar) that you pull against the handle. While it is not a fancy system, there is no learning curve with it, and it could probably even be comfortable in its familiarity.
At 66 pounds, the Lawn-Boy is very light when compared to other mowers. For context, the eight other rear-wheel mowers in Berendsohn’s tests ranged in weight from 87 pounds to 132 pounds, so the Lawn-Boy isn’t just a little lighter than the pack—it’s quite a lot lighter. This adds to its maneuverability (and makes it much easier to load into a car or truck to be serviced).
The Lawn-Boy also has an overhead-valve engine, which Consumer Reports prefers over side-valve engines because it’s more efficient, a little quieter, and less inclined to have maintenance issues over time.
At Amazon, the Lawn-Boy scores well with customer feedback, with an average of 4.4 stars from 97 reviews. At Home Depot, the average is a little lower at 3.6 with 86 reviews. According to Consumer Reports, Lawn-Boy actually ranks right alongside Toro for brand reliability for self-propelled mowers.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Lawn-Boy is a very stripped-down mower, which is not surprising given its low price. The mower is lacking a blade brake clutch, a side discharge, a washout port, and of course, Honda’s Versamow system. These are all features that are extremely helpful to have and they make mowing a much easier experience, but if you’re just looking to cut grass on a budget, you can certainly get by without them.
With no engine to deal with, the EGO gives you a level of convenience gas-powered mowers can’t match. First off, it starts with the push of a button. According to the reviews, the run time on the EGO mower is about 45 minutes. A battery can be fully recharged in 30 minutes, so even if you don’t get your mowing completed, the downtime isn’t too significant. (In the past, cordless mowers could require all night to recharge, which can obviously be a big inconvenience.) For additional runtime, extra EGO batteries are available for stand-alone purchase: You can get the longer-lasting 4.0 Ah ($200), which is what the mower comes with, or the 2.0 Ah ($130). The smaller 2.0-Ah battery can only power the mower for around 20 to 25 minutes of run time. With a second 4.0-Ah battery or even a 2.0-Ah battery, you could potentially keep one on the mower and another on the charger, swapping them out as needed to extend the runtime indefinitely.
It’s also a good deal quieter than a regular mower—20 percent according to the manufacturer. Marc Lyman of HomeFixated.com reviewed the EGO and wrote that, “you’ll have no doubt the motor is going with the EGO, but the sound is downright pleasant when compared to the incessant, mind-numbing, mildly-deafening drone that accompanies most of the gas-powered mowers in our ‘hood.”
The overall handling of the EGO is also nice. Consumer Reports writes that the 62-pound machine is “easy to push, pull, and turn.” Adding to this is the design of the handle, which Lyman says, “is extremely easy to use, and more solid than other handles we’ve used.”
Berendsohn, who is generally wary of cordless mowers, tested the EGO and wrote that it, “does a commendable job of not only cutting grass but also of overturning my hard-bitten view [that gas engines are better for yard work].” The mower uses a single joystick to control its cutting height, a feature Berendsohn called, “the easiest height adjustment I’ve seen on any mower.” During his test, the EGO filled the clippings bag to the point that it was bulging, which is “rare, even with gas engine mowers.”
Lyman was not only impressed with the quiet operation of the mower, but with the headlight as well, which he called out as one of his favorite features. Admitting that he laughed at the feature at first, he wrote that “the last section of lawn I mowed was in near total darkness, but the headlamps actually let me finish the task and still see what I was mowing. Plus, it kept me from mowing the flowers, which my wife tends to frown upon.”
In his review at Pro Tool Reviews, Clint DeBoer wrote that the EGO is “a revolutionary product that cuts well, in comfortable to push, easy to fold up, and provides more than enough run-time on the included 4.0 Ah battery pack.” He continued by writing that the EGO is “an impressive mower that makes my gas-powered model suffer a serious inferiority complex.”
DeBoer and Lyman both mentioned this ability of the EGO to fold up for storage—most mower’s gas engines are designed to sit upright at all times, or the shifting fuel within can soak spark plugs and cause other problems. Here, the fuel-free mower is actually designed to be stored in the upright position. This gives you a mower that only takes up a 20-inch by 16-inch spot of your garage, giving it a footprint that’s about a third of the size of a typical mower (and that’s not even counting the average mower’s awkward handle). Because it’s a manageable 62 pounds, another option is to hang it on a wall, freeing up even more floor space.
Consumer Reports has the EGO ranked as the top cordless mower. In a more in-depth post on the mower, they call it out for the easy storage and the handling. They also write that “ergonomically, you can’t do much better.”
At Home Depot, the customer feedback on the EGO is excellent. With 609 reporting, the mower has an average rating of 4.5. What makes these numbers even more impressive is that the EGO was only released in early 2014—there’s really been a lot of interest in it, considering that it’s a fairly expensive product with such a short time on the market.
Another benefit of the EGO is that once the mower and battery are purchased, other tools in their 56-volt line-up can be bought at a reduced price as a bare tool. In our guide to The Best Leaf Blowers, we recommended the EGO blower ($100, bare tool) as the best cordless option. They also sell a chainsaw ($200, bare tool) and a string trimmer ($100, bare tool).
Flaws but not dealbreakers
With any cordless mower, the biggest concern is going to be the run time. From all reports, the EGO can operate for about 45 minutes before emptying the battery. Depending on your situation, this may not be a bad thing, but it’s certainly worth understanding before spending $500 on a mower (and, possibly, an additional $200 on a backup battery).
Also, according to consumer reports, the cut quality and mulching ability of the EGO could be a little better. They point out that their number two pick in the cordless category, the Black & Decker CM1936 ($350) is slightly better in these departments. (But then they also say cordless mowers simply aren’t known for excellent cut quality, period.) The Black & Decker is less powerful and has a narrower cutting deck, and the battery cannot be used with any other tools, so when compared to the overall features and benefits of the EGO, we feel that a slight reduction in cut quality is worth it. Lyman has also tested both and told us that he would choose the EGO for its usability features.
Also great: the best gas push mower
If you have a small lawn (less than 2,000-3,000 square feet), and you don’t mind the exertion, you can reduce your price level even further and get a push mower. This is just a walk-behind mower without a drive system on the wheels. So with no self-propelling feature, the machine only moves with someone standing behind it pushing. Consumer Reports hailed the Cub Cadet SC100 11A-A92J ($250) as the top push mower. They liked it for its mulching ability, its easy handling, the premium engine, and its washout port. Concluding their review, they referred to it as “a stand-out in its category.” At Home Depot, it has one of the highest feedback ratings that we saw of any mower we looked at: an average of 4.6 stars from 189 reviews, with 95 percent recommending the mower. At 63 pounds, it will also be easy to load it into the car if you have to take it to the shop.
We have found that this is an extremely popular mower and is prone to selling out. We spoke to Cub Cadet about this, and they told us that during the height of the summer, it may only be in stock for a few days at a time. For the 2015 season, Cub Cadet has released the SC100HW ($280), which is the same mower but with larger rear wheels. This means that it will perform better on uneven terrain, but will be a little more difficult for tight turns. Still, it’s a nice option if the SC100 is sold out.
Sweethome editor Harry Sawyers added that he used a “painfully heavy” Craftsman push mower in the 1990s on a hilly Georgia lawn of nearly half an acre. While he would have strongly preferred a self-propelled model at the time, he says he’s living proof that, with enough sweat and determination, a basic push mower can get the job done.
If you have a really small, flat lawn (less than a quarter of an acre), don’t mind a workout, and don’t want to deal with gas or electricity, a fully manual reel mower might be a good fit for you. Beyond the zero emissions, reel mowers need virtually no maintenance beyond a good sharpening every few years. See our full guide on the subject here.
Care and maintenance
A mower is a big investment, so you’re going to want to take care of it. Proper maintenance breaks down into two parts: a mid-season check-up and proper storage in the off season. While there are many online resources for mower maintenance, the most important reference for details on what exactly to do is going to be the mower’s owner’s manual. Not only is this information specifically tailored to your machine and engine, but following it closely also allows you to maintain the warranty. Like we said above, if you don’t check your oil and it runs dry, causing the engine to seize, you won’t get much sympathy from the customer service department.
For the most part regular maintenance is easy. It involves checking the oil, checking the air filter, cleaning the mowing dome, and sharpening the blades from time to time. At the end of each season, you’ll need to drain the gas tank. Also, it’s important to use stabilizers with your gas. This stop the ethanol in the gas from damaging the engine during periods of long storage (longer than 30 days).
There are a lot of mower companies and each one makes a lot of different mowers. Because we didn’t perform any hands-on testing ourselves, we had to rely entirely testing data of others, information from the manufacturers, and customer feedback. Even the mega Consumer Reports piece doesn’t cover every model (or even come close to doing so). Because of this massive number of models, we had to make some generalizations based on the ones that were tested. So while many of the other manufacturers appear to make nice mowers, here are the reasons we discounted some of the other models.
The Husqvarna mowers that Consumer Reports tested all sat in the lower half of the spectrum. On top of this, in one of his reviews, Berendsohn made the point about the Husqvarna drive system that, “if you need to pull the Husqvarna backward, then you must first roll the mower forward a foot or two without the drive system engaged.” In another round-up he wrote that the control bar is uncomfortable.
Snapper and Troy-Bilt both have nice-looking rear-wheel models that scored well at Consumer Reports, but they were both beat out by the similarly priced Toro Recycler as well as the Honda.
The Cub Cadet and Craftsman mowers all landed in the middle to low range of the Consumer Reports testing, with the exception being the Cub Cadet push mower. Berendsohn generally seems to like Craftsmans, but they never land in the top spots of his tests. Same with the Cub Cadets.
Gravely makes mowers mostly for professionals, but have a few models appropriate for the homeowner, specifically the XD3. Unfortunately neither Consumer Reports or Berendsohn has done any testing of the brand, so information is scarce. They’re also only available at authorized dealers which may or may not be near where you live. The customer reviews that I could locate were mixed.
At Consumer Reports, Yard Machines is all over the map with ratings; some models rank well, others don’t (and none of them bested any of our picks). The company does have very good customer feedback at Home Depot, but less so at Amazon where there is a smaller sampling.
For cordless mowers, there aren’t many that can compete with the EGO, either in the Consumer Reports round-up or with the enthusiastic customer feedback. CR’s next in line is the Black & Decker CM1936 ($380), but it doesn’t handle as well and the batteries are not compatible with other tools. Ryobi has a cordless mower, and its battery is compatible with other Ryobi tools, but the mower ranks in the middle of the CR cordless mower rundown. Also, for what it’s worth, we tested an EGO cordless leaf blower against Ryobi’s cordless leaf blower and found the EGO to be far more powerful. Additional cordless mowers that received lower scores from CR are models from Worx, Kobalt, Toro, and STIHL.
For other push mowers, there is the Lawn-Boy 10730 ($240), which doesn’t have the stellar customer feedback of our pick, the Cub Cadet. Strangely, Consumer Reports did not test Honda’s push mower, the HRR216PKA ($440). While it’s definitely expensive for a push mower, this model appears to offer the same overall high quality and fantastic mulching ability as our main pick. Being part of their HRR line, it doesn’t have the Versamow function. But otherwise, it is likely be a very nice mower if you just don’t need self-propulsion and you’re willing to deal with the seriously high price tag.
If you really like the idea of a Honda mower, but are buying on a budget, they also offer a really thinned-down push mower, the HRS216PDA ($350). This one doesn’t mulch and it doesn’t bag. It just side discharges like your grandfather’s old mower. At $350, it’s the least-expensive Honda mower. Again, there is little doubt that the quality is there (along with the Honda price), but the tradeoffs are the mulching and bagging functions—significant features that we feel you’d appreciate if you went instead for our runner-up pick, the $400 Toro model.
Corded electric mowers are also available. While perfect for some, they have so many limitations that most would find them frustrating. Because they need to be plugged in, mowing around trees, hedges, or any other obstruction becomes an exercise in extension cord management. Due to these drawbacks, we did not research corded electric mowers. Plus, with cordless mowers making so much recent improvement, anyone with a strong preference against gas engines could be very happy with our cordless pick.
With the 2015 season wrapped up, there are still a number of mowers that have not received enough coverage for us to make a definitive opinion on, namely the latest Craftsman mowers (22-inch Gold Series and 22-inch Platinum Series). We will maintain an eye out for Berendsohn’s coverage as well as any updates to the Consumer Reports guide.
Lawnmower guru at Popular Mechanics, Interview,
West Michigan Lawn Services, Interview,
Kellam Lawn Mower, Interview,
Boston Lawnmower Company, Interview,
Former editor-in-chief of Autoblog, Interview,
Lawn mowers & tractors, Consumer Reports (subscription required)
Best Lawnmowers of the Year: Comparison Test, Popular Mechanics,
Originally published: April 10, 2015