The self-propelled walk-behind mower is a staple of the American yard. These machines account for something like 80 percent of all grass-cutting equipment sold in this country every year. There are a ton of types, features, and prices to choose from. This test concerns one of the most popular and handy of those machines: self-propelled lawn mowers with gas-engines and rear-wheel drive—a machine that we’ve been testing and retesting for decades.
The machines we tested here not only leave a nicely-cut surface, they also act as lawn vacuums. With a bag attached, they pick up clippings, twigs, seed pods, and leaves, leaving your lawn looking as soft and smooth as an outdoor carpet. The finely-chopped lawn slaw in the bag gets a second life when you dump it on a compost pile.
All the mowers in the test mulch (discharge the clippings into the grass) and bag. Some also side discharge, a distinct help when moving tall grass and non-lawn areas.
Most of these mowers have a design and features that almost anyone who’s cut a lawn will find familiar. But there are some improvements that make the job easier and faster.
Other changes make the mowers more versatile and better able to handle rougher jobs. For example, all the mowers have better power-to-weight ratios than models from just a few years ago because manufacturers are using more weight-reducing plastics, especially at the mower’s front and back. Though the move sounds like it would diminish quality, we have not experienced a decrease in durability during our testing.
You will also find several lawn mowers that start with a key, so you don’t have to yank on a cord anymore. And Toro’s self-propelled mower is the first in this class with power reverse, a feature previously found only on commercial machines.
How We Test
We test all mowers using a standard Seniorhelpline methodology: We cut turf and rougher non-turf grasses like Timothy, clover, orchard grass, and wild oats. We mow uphill, downhill, and side hill. The maximum slope we cut is about 35 degrees. That may not sound like much, but it’s about all you can do to stand on it, let alone mow it. We mow damp and wet grass to test general cutting performance and whether clippings accumulate on the tires. We cut dry and dusty surfaces to see how well the bag filters under less-than-optimal conditions. We cut normal turf-height grass, and shin-deep grass.
We test the mowers on smooth lawn surfaces and rutted, non-lawn surfaces like those spaces where the woods merge onto yards and along rough fence lines. All walk mowers have pull start (recoil) handles—even those with a key ignition. We pull start every mower, and we fully raise and lower decks, mount and dismount bags and side-discharge chutes. We pay particularly close attention to how well these mowers bag.
In the course of their testing, these mowers also make multiple trips on and off a trailer or go up and down ramps many times into the bed of a pickup. In short, they take a beating.
How We Rated Each Lawn Mower
We determine our overall star rating by evaluating each lawn mower’s performance, workmanship, design, cut quality, and bagging quality. We also rate its performance in certain non-standard applications like sidehill and uphill mowing, and how it fared on rougher ground that we don’t consider to be a “yard.” Those results are listed separately and not factored into the overall rating.
3 Stars: Satisfactory
3-1/2 Stars: Good, improved ease of use
4 Stars: Very Good, additional versatility or power
4-1/2 Stars: Outstanding, more emphasis on some combination of power, cut quality, bagging, or versatility.
5 Stars: Category leading and possibly the best product in our test; performance as well as mowers with 4-1/2 stars plus has improved industrial design, ease of use, or features that promote durability.
Engine size: 163 CC | Functions: mulch, side discharge, bag | Non-lawn surfaces: Very good
Uphill mowing: Very good | Sidehill mowing: Very good | Bagging: Good
The engineers didn’t overthink this product, which is fast, light, and simple—an excellent crossover machine that can handle your lawn, but also non-lawn areas where turf meets rough areas, thanks to 11-inch rear wheels that roll more easily over tricky spots and a mid-size engine with plenty of torque for tall grass. We particularly like its speed range, which you alter by squeezing the two handle levers, from a crawl to going as fast as you can walk. The mower’s two-lever height control makes deck adjustment easier than models with four levers. A unique handle hinge allows you to fold the handle forward for more compact storage. We only noticed one small issue: When the bag was empty, some grass clippings would leak from the space between the bag’s top and the rear hatch.
Cub Cadet SC900
Engine size: 196 CC | Functions: mulch, side discharge, bag | Non-lawn surfaces: Fair
Uphill mowing: Good | Sidehill mowing: Fair | Bagging: Very good
With a slightly-larger-than-normal deck (23 inches, versus the industry norm of 22 inches), large engine, and an oversize tightly sealed grass bag, this is a machine well-suited to a large suburban yard. The push-forward speed control allows a great deal of precision in mowing speed, though the lever has a tendency to rock when used on rough, non-lawn surfaces and side hills. Whether this is a problem for you depends on how smooth or rough, hilly or flat your lawn is. For rugged terrain, take advantage of the mower’s power and get the optional rear-discharge chute ($25). No matter where you use it, the Cub is an outstanding mower that works across a wide range of mowing conditions, from lush to dusty, tall grass to normal height.
Engine size: 201 CC | Functions: mulch, bag | Non-lawn surfaces: Fair
Uphill mowing: Good | Sidehill mowing: Fair | Bagging: Outstanding
The test’s most expensive mower is the ultimate homeowner’s ride. This is a beautifully engineered and very powerful self-propelled lawn mower, with the test’s largest engine and the only machine equipped with a smooth-running hydrostatic transmission; its fluid drive makes engaging, disengaging, and adjusting speed as smooth as that in your car. Furthermore, a rear adjustment handle allows you to choose the degree to which the mower mulches or bags. In one position, it’s full mulch; turn the handle to make the mower fully bag. Between those points are stops that allow partial mulching or bagging. It’s most at home on flat, or gently rolling surfaces where it delivers a velvet-smooth cut surface without leaving a trace of waste grass. It has more than enough power to handle tall grass and climb smooth hills, even with the grass bag full. Note, however, that its wheel size and handle configuration make it less suited for rough, non-lawn, and steep sidehill surfaces.
Engine size: 160 CC | Functions: mulch, side discharge, bag | Non-lawn surfaces: Very good
Uphill mowing: Very good | Sidehill mowing: Very good | Bagging: Very good
The test’s most versatile mower (and an exceptional value) is well suited to smooth and polite cutting conditions. But it’s also a tough hombre that can handle rough ground and tall grass. That’s due to a generous four inches of height adjustment, 11-inch rear wheels, and a rear-mounted side-discharge chute. We were amazed at its enthusiasm in the tall-grass test. Walking it into a rough on a golf course, it just plowed through while a steady stream of grass clippings shot out to the side almost like it was a piece of agricultural equipment. We liked everything about the mower except one thing: the tall rear tires can make it harder access the rear adjustment levers.
Lawn Boy 17734
Engine size: 149 CC | Functions: mulch, side discharge (with accessory), bag | Non-lawn surfaces: Fair | Uphill mowing: Good | Sidehill mowing: Good | Bagging: Good
We like Lawn Boy mowers going all the way back to the two-stroke version of these machines dating all the way to the 1950s. Historically, these are light, nimble mowers well suited to normal suburban landscapes, if not rough areas. That’s the case here. It’s a fully-featured machine, complete with electric start and linkage for two-lever height adjustment that weighs only 75 lbs. That’s due, somewhat, to the smaller engine. Like all Lawn Boy engines, though, it’s spunky; the mower will handle all but the tallest or wettest grass. We also liked its tight-fitting, dust-blocking bag.
Toro Personal Pace Power Reverse 20355
Engine size: 163 cc | Functions: mulch, side discharge, bag | Non-lawn surfaces: Good
Uphill mowing: Very good | Sidehill mowing: Fair | Bagging: Very good
This is the only walk mower with power reverse (provided by the front wheels). Toro pioneered the Personal Pace system, whereby you increase mowing speed by pressing more firmly forward on the drive handle. With this mower, when you back up, you pull back on that handle and the front wheels kick in. That’s particularly helpful if you have to reverse uphill–with a full grass bag. The machine also several other great features: The rear lever allows you to quickly switch between mulching and bagging, tall rear wheels aid on rough ground, and a fold-forward handle allows you to store the mower vertically against the wall. Any complaints? A small one. During the wet-grass test we noticed that clippings could accumulate on the rear wheels, hindering traction and control.
Troy-Bilt TB300 XP
Engine size: 159 CC | Functions: mulch, side discharge, bag | Non-lawn surfaces: Fair
Uphill mowing: Good | Sidehill mowing: Good | Bagging: Good
We’re longtime fans of Troy-Bilt lawn mowers, generally; they offer a lot of performance for the money. The TB300 XP doesn’t disappoint. It is nearly identical to the Craftsman (also built by MTD, Troy-Bilt’s parent company) with some key differences. This one has a slightly smaller engine, standard-size rear wheels, and a different drive system that works more like your car’s cruise control. Set the lever to the desired position, squeeze the drive handles and away you go. Troy-Bilt also packs in a few other goodies that we like. Most impressive are the two-lever deck-height adjustment and an excellent tread configuration that boosts traction for uphill and sidehill mowing.