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. After 50 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 how much is bagged—justify its steep price.
The Honda ranks very highly in tests by Popular Mechanics and currently has the number three spot in an epic Consumer Reports rundown (the first two spots are nearly identical Hondas that cost more and have features we feel aren’t necessary). It has a large 190-cc 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 five-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; 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 cleanup because it forces leaves to stay in the mowing dome until they’re fully shredded and deposited in the bag. As one owner told us, “The mower has virtually replaced raking entirely.”
Before the 2015 season, Honda 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—it’s possible some outlets still have old inventory to sell.
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 20340 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. This is a new runner-up pick for the 2016 season, replacing the Toro Recycler 20333.
Compared to last year’s pick, the Toro 20340 costs about the same, has a slightly larger engine, and also the ability to be stowed away upright. This, according to Toro, reduces the storage footprint by about 70 percent, making this a valuable feature to anyone with a small shed or crowded garage. However, with either Toro, there’s nothing like Honda’s Versamow feature, so you’re either fully mulching or bagging. And while the Toro did well in the Consumer Reports testing, no one puts it on the same pedestal as the Honda—especially when it comes to reliability.
If your lawn is less than half an acre and you’re after a bare-bones mower, a good choice is the Lawn-Boy 10732. 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. The Lawn-Boy has a two-year full warranty (with a three-year guarantee to start easily), while Honda offers a full warranty for five years—so don’t expect the level of reliability you’d get with our top pick.
If you’d rather not deal with the seasonal maintenance and exhaust associated with gas-powered engines, we like the battery-powered EGO LM2101 56-Volt Cordless Lawn Mower. This replaces our previous pick, the EGO LM2001. This new version has a slightly larger cutting deck and comes with a more powerful battery. At about $500 at the time of writing, there’s no doubt that the LM2101 is 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 homeowners. The downside is that the battery only offers about 45 minutes of mowing time (but with a relatively short 40-minute charging time), so it’s best for lawns of a quarter of an acre or less.
We also have a recommendation for a simple gas push mower, the Cub Cadet SC100 11A-A92J710, 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 nice features—easy handling, a premium engine, and a washout port to keep the mowing dome clean.
Over the past three mowing seasons, we’ve totaled about 50 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; as his former colleague (and Sweethome editor) Harry Sawyers said, “[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 Koehler 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, Pennsylvania, and David of Boston Lawnmower Company, who asked that his last name be withheld. Beyond these interviews, I read everything I could online, paying the closest attention to a Consumer Reports mega rundown of walk-behind mowers (subscription required) and Berendsohn’s massive collection of articles over at Popular Mechanics. John Neff, The Wirecutter’s former car editor (and now editor-in-chief of Motor1), was a key source of technical info on engines and other details. He has helped us test Hondas for the past two summers.
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 50 hours spent researching and interviewing experts, we concluded that that ideal mower for most lawns smaller than 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 so you can easily clean the underside of the cutting dome with your garden hose.
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—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 one to two miles. That’s quite a distance; 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 price premium. 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, lifting the front wheels off the ground, and turn. FWD mowers can easily do the maneuver because the drive wheels are immediately disengaged, but a RWD mower that keeps advancing can make it awkward. However, you can do it with a RWD model as long as you have full control over the mower’s speed: you just throttle down, execute the turn, and throttle back up. Once you get used to it, it’s simple. John Neff has been using a RWD Honda for four 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 lawn 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 [a key nutrient]) 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.” If you’re considering replacing an older machine, being able to mulch may be the strongest argument for upgrading.
Another nice (and 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 Koehler, one of the landscapers we spoke with, even told me 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 airflow and makes the mower less efficient.
Manufacturers will try to wow you with the size and make of the engine. But in 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 190 cc. Frankly, any of these work.” Consumer Reports agrees. In this video they note that “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, leaf mulching, or tall, wet grass) 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), they 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.”
Regular-sized rear wheels and non-pivoting front wheels will do just fine for most people. Though larger rear tires and pivoting front wheels are an option, 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 a little 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, Consumer Reports points out, the wheels extend out from the front of the mower, preventing it “from cutting close up against foundations and walls.” But if your yard is a maze of high-precision turns and pirouettes, pivot wheels are worth investigating.
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 bias against gas engines could be very happy with our cordless pick.
Many mower companies make many 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.
According to our research, 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.) Costing $600 at the time of writing, 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 is up near the top spot at Consumer Reports and 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 offers great traction and 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. And it 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, you can, for example, 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.
If your grass is too wet or too tall, for example, the blades can get overwhelmed and your mulch will come 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 rake up, bag, and dump. Set it right and you won’t have to go back to clean up a clumpy mess all over the yard.
In the fall, Versamow 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.”
In 2015, Honda changed the drive control system to a setup called the Select Drive. This replaces the two-pronged paddle controller from the previous model year (which was our pick for the best lawn mower in this story’s 2014 version). Neff has tested out both systems and feels the Select Drive is a slight improvement. “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.” He continued, “I prefer it slightly over my 2014, though not so much that I think anyone who bought the 2014 model should be envious.”
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. Our landscapers told us RWD 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 the same situation, the Honda will only flex. 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.
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).
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 five-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 two or three years.
At Home Depot, this current version of the Honda has 4.5 stars after 86 commenters responded. Most comments praised the tool for its reliable start (normally on the first pull). Others express that it’s worth the cost for such a nice machine.
The sense that I had after completing my research was that Honda mowers deliver a consistently high level of quality. Of the top nine spots in the Consumer Report’s run down, seven are Hondas, including the top five spots. 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 to this $850 model. Our pick is actually the least expensive of the five mowers in the HRX line.
The number-one spot in the Consumer Reports rating is the HRX217K5VLA, which is nearly identical to our pick, except that it costs about $80 more and has an electric start. We read so much about the easy pull start of the Honda that we don’t feel this to be an essential feature worth the additional cost. CR’s second-place Honda, the HRX217K5VYA, is around $100 more and has a blade brake clutch. Though certainly a nice option to have, we feel that $700 for a mower starts to push the limits of reasonable pricing.
Honda also has the HRR line (our pick is part of the HRX line). These don’t have the Versamow or a composite deck. Also, the warranty is only three years long, not five. HRRs also have a less powerful engine (160 cc) and the older thumb-paddle control system. The HRR mower that is most comparable to our pick is the HRR216VKA, which costs around $430 at the time of writing, or about $170 less than our pick. This is a sizable difference in cost, but we feel that the combined benefits of the HRX features warrant the upgrade, especially considering that a mower that should last a decade or more.
Even at its high price, the Honda is not a perfect machine, and it lacks a few features.
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 or an electric start. As mentioned above, we don’t feel that either of these features justify the added cost, particularly when considering Honda’s great reputation for easy pull-starts. But again, if these are important features to you, Honda offers appropriate models: the HRX217K5VYA (blade brake clutch), the HRX217K5VLA (electric start), and the HRX217HZA (both).
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 may become 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 extra seconds to change the cutting height.
Lastly, the mower 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.
Neff just wrapped up his third summer with his Honda HRX217K5VKA, and he reports no problems with it so far. He has the earlier version with the paddle speed-control 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 bulletproof so far. The drive controls also work as well as they did on the first day.”
For 2016, we have a new runner-up pick, the Toro 20340 Recycler. This replaces our previous pick, the Toro 20333 Recycler. The two mowers are very similar and even cost the same, but the 20340 Recycler has a larger engine and the ability to be folded up and stored in the upright position. According to Toro, this reduces the storage footprint up to 70 percent over a traditional mower. Unfortunately, the Toro 20340 is lacking the blade brake clutch found on the 20333 Recycler, but we feel that the more compact storage ability is worth the sacrifice of that single feature. Toro’s 20340 Recycler has a lot of positive feedback at Home Depot and Consumer Reports rates it favorably, but it doesn’t have the finesse or long-term reputation of the Honda (nor the Versamow feature).
The headlining feature of the Toro 20340 is the SmartStow system, which is is the mower’s ability to be stored upright. Due to the unique design of the Briggs & Stratton engine, the machine can be placed on its side and not leak oil into the cylinder (which fouls the spark plug). To stow the Toro, you simply fold the handle over the body of the mower and lock it in place. The mower can then be placed upright or wheeled around like a piece of luggage. The pivot point of the handle provides a flat spot for the mower to “stand” on. In the locked and upright position, it’s also easy to replace the blade or clean off the underside of the mowing deck. Toro has a video of the SmartStow here.
The 20340 comes with Toro’s unique control system, the Personal Pace. In a nutshell, the variable-speed mower adjusts to how fast you’re walking based on the pressure applied to the control bar (up to 4.8 mph). If you’re walking fast, you’ll naturally be pressing it forward, and if you’re walking slower, the pressure will be less. It takes a little getting used to, but based on the customer feedback, most users are satisfied with how it works.
Consumer Reports ranks the 20340 in the number 10 spot. This may seem low, but consider that seven of the first nine spots are closely-related Hondas and the other two are much more expensive Toros ($550+). The 20340 is the highest ranking mower in the $400-and-under price range.
In their write-up, Consumer Reports notes that the 20340 succeeds in all three modes; it “mulched impressively,” “filled its bag to capacity,” and “dispersed clippings smoothly and evenly in side-discharge mode.” They also write that it “had no discernible flaws in its performance.”
The Toro 20340 has a 190-cc engine, as opposed to the 163-cc engine of the Toro 20333. 190 cc is at the upper end of residential mowers, so this Toro should have an easier time with tall, thick grass and leaves when compared to less powerful mowers. 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 or wet grass.
The Toro comes with a two-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 three-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; the mower earns an average of 4.7 stars over 41 reviews with 83 percent recommending the mower.
The Toro 20340 comes with eight-inch front wheels and 11-inch rear wheels. These larger rear wheels are going to assist the mower over uneven terrain, but, as we discovered in our research, they may make tight turns a little more difficult. That said, we looked through the majority of the customer feedback at Home Depot and didn’t see anyone making an issue of this.
Also, the 20340 does not have a blade brake clutch like our previous runner-up pick, the Toro 20333 Recycler. The clutch lets you stop the blade but not the mower in order to step away from the machine, maybe to clear a branch or a toy out of the way. It’s a feature that adds convenience to mowing, but it’s not essential. We feel that with all other aspects of the two mowers being so similar, most people would appreciate having the SmartStow system over the blade stop. If a blade brake clutch is an essential feature to you, we still like the Toro 20333 and would recommend it to you.
Last, the Toro 20340 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. 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—even lighter than our 70-pound cordless pick. (Our Honda pick weighs about 90 pounds, and the runner-up Toro weighs 80 pounds.) 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 the style is more efficient, a little quieter, and less inclined to have maintenance issues over time.
The Lawn-Boy is a very stripped-down mower, which is not surprising given its low price. The mower lacks 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.
Also, the 149-cc engine on the Lawn-Boy is on the small side. While it should work fine under normal conditions, it might struggle in very tall, dense grass.
If your mowing usually takes less than 45 minutes and you want to bypass the hassles involved with owning a combustion engine, we recommend the EGO LM2101 56-Volt Cordless Lawn Mower. This is an updated version of last year’s pick, EGO’s LM2001. The LM2101 is an expensive machine, only $100 less than the recommended Honda, but the feedback on it is overwhelmingly positive. Consumer Reports has it ranked as the top cordless push mower, and considerably higher than the second-place model (and the EGO LM2001). Berendsohn and other respected reviewers lauded the older LM2001 for its power, handling, and stowability, and all signs point to the newer version being an improvement on the old.
The LM2101 has a 21-inch cutting deck and comes with a 5.0-Ah battery, as opposed to the older LM2001, which has a 20-inch cutting deck and comes with a 4.0-Ah battery. Consumer Reports, which has tested both models, rates the newer LM2101 higher in the categories of mulching, bagging, and side-discharge. The older LM2001 is now selling for $50 less than the new LM2101, but we feel that the upgrade is worth it. We also wouldn’t be surprised if the older LM2001 were slowly phased out.
With no engine to deal with, the EGO offers a level of convenience gas-powered mowers can’t match. It starts with the push of a button, requires no gas or oil, and can be folded up and hung on a wall when not in use. It’s also a good deal quieter than a regular mower—20 percent, according to the manufacturer. Marc Lyman of HomeFixated.com reviewed the original EGO LM2001 and writes 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 original EGO mower is “easy to push, pull, and turn” (they rank the two mowers the same in the handling category). Aiding this is the design of the handle—the same between the two models—which Lyman says “is extremely easy to use, and more solid than other handles we’ve used.”
According to the reviews, the run time on the EGO mower is about 45 minutes. We assume that this is under ideal conditions and would expect actual run times to be slightly shorter. A battery can be fully recharged in 40 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 could obviously be a big inconvenience. For added run time, standalone batteries can be purchased, but they’re costly. Depending on the Ah, they range in price from about $130 (2.0Ah) to about $380 (7.5 Ah). With a second 4.0-Ah battery (about $200) or even that 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.
Berendsohn, who is generally wary of cordless mowers, tested the original EGO LM2001 and writes 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 also impressed with the headlight, 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.”
Another benefit of the EGO is that once the mower and battery are purchased, other tools in their 56-volt lineup can be bought at a reduced price as a bare tools (blower, chainsaw and string trimmer).
EGO also has another version of the mower, the LM2102SP. This model comes with a 7.5-Ah battery and is self-propelled. It also costs about $600, which we think is a lot, considering it’s the same cost as our main Honda pick that has the Versamow feature and no runtime limitations. Also, as one Home Depot commenter points out, the LM2101 is so light and easy to handle that the self-propelled feature really isn’t necessary. Still, it’s an option if you feel you need it.
If you have a small lawn (less than 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 as the top push mower. They liked it for its mulching ability, easy handling, premium engine, and 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 4.5 stars over 288 reviews, with 93 percent recommending the mower. At 63 pounds, it’s also light and will be easy to load into the car if you have to take it to the shop.
This is an extremely popular mower, and it 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. Just before the 2015 season, Cub Cadet has released the SC100HW, 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.
A mower is a big investment, so take care of it. Proper maintenance breaks down into two parts: a midseason check-up and proper storage in the offseason. 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 stops the ethanol in the gas from damaging the engine during periods of long storage (longer than 30 days).
The Husqvarna HU725AWDEX sits in the middle range of the Consumer Reports ratings. In one of his reviews, Berendsohn tested a model with a similar drive system and made the point 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 roundup, he wrote that the control bar is uncomfortable. In general, Husqvarna mowers don’t have the same reputation as the Hondas and can’t be stored vertically like the Toro.
Landing in the middle of the Consumer Reports rating is the Snapper SP105. This mower, like the rest of the Snapper line-up, has neither the reputation of the Honda nor the vertical storage of the Toro.
The Troy-Bilt TB280ES, the highest ranked Troy-Bilt mower at Consumer Reports, nearly matches the recommended Toro’s overall score, but it is unable to be stowed vertically. This model also has front wheel drive, not the recommended rear wheel drive.
All of the Cub Cadet mowers like the SC300HW score lower at Consumer Reports than the Honda and the Toro. None of them have innovative features like Versamow or the SmartStow.
Craftsman mowers, like the 37591, only achieve average Consumer Reports ratings. Berendsohn generally seems to like Craftsmans, but they never land in the top spots of his tests.
The Gravely XD3 is one of the few residential models offered by the company. Gravely has a solid reputation, but 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 we could locate were mixed.
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, 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, 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. 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, the company also offers a really pared-down push mower, the HRS216K5PKA. This one doesn’t mulch or bag. It just side discharges like your grandfather’s old mower. At $350 (at the time of writing), 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 we feel you’d appreciate if you went instead for our runner-up pick, the slightly more expensive Toro model.
(Feature image by Honda.)
Originally published: April 13, 2016