The average American lawn mower is as hardworking a do-it-yourself machine as you can find. It sees constant use from spring until fall, so it makes sense to shop carefully for it. And after decades of testing them, we can look you straight in the eye and say that the perfect mower doesn’t exist. What does are machines at various price levels and with various features to suit the priorities of the person using it.
This article focuses on one of the hardest-working forms of lawnmower: those that move themselves, typically best for larger lawns. See quick info of the five top performers below, then scroll down for buying advice and in-depth reviews of these and other models that earned their places on our list of the best.
Things to Consider
A mower is like many consumer products in that the more features a manufacturer adds, the more expensive it becomes. A longer or eye-catching features list isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes less is more. Here are the most important to keep in mind.
Engine size: A mower can be powered by an engine as small as 125 cc, but most fall somewhere in the 140 cc to 190 cc range. A large engine helps when powering through tall, lush grass or in extreme conditions, such as with a side discharge chute in place and mowing tall weeds in a border area. Its extra torque improves bagging when the going gets tough (tall leaf-covered grass, in the fall). But if you mow sensibly and pay attention to deck height—and especially if you don’t let your lawn get out of control—an engine in the 140-160 cc range has more than enough power to get the job done.
Rear wheel diameter: A mower can have all four wheels the same diameter (seven to eight inches) or it may have rear wheels that range from 9.5 inches to 12 inches in diameter. Larger rear wheels help the mower better ride over bumpy ground.
Storage options: Mower manufacturers have paid attention to homeowners complaining about crowded garages and sheds and equipped some mowers with handles that fold forward, allowing for more compact storage. Some mowers have the forward-fold feature and can be stored standing on end for additional space savings.
Electric start: Self explanatory. Mowers that are really decked out start the engine with the twist of a key or the press of a button. It’s a great option but a luxury. Keep the mower engine tuned and use fresh or preserved fuel, and you’ll never have trouble starting.
Speed control: The mower’s ground speed can be controlled any number of ways—a squeeze handle, a drive bar that you press forward, even a dial. There’s no single right answer here. Look at the design and think about how you like to work. For example, if more than one person will be using the mower, perhaps even people who are right or left handed, a drive control like that on a Toro 21382 might be the answer. Just push down on a bar to make it go faster.
Two or three function: A mower that can bag, mulch, and side discharge is known as a three-function mower, the most versatile kind. Two-function mowers bag and mulch or mulch and side discharge.
Deck height: Deck height can be controlled with one, two, or four levers. Single-lever height adjustment is the easiest to use, but it requires more linkage, which adds weight and complexity. If for some reason you find yourself varying deck height frequently, it’s a good option, otherwise two or four levers work just fine.
Deck material: Only Honda makes a gas engine mower with a high-impact plastic deck (there are battery mowers that have plastic decks). Otherwise, mowers generally have a steel deck and a few manufacturers (Toro for example) offer a corrosion-resistant aluminum deck; an idea manufacturers last experimented with in the 1970s and 80s but found that rough-using homeowners were damaging the decks on rocks and that lawn chemical residue was also taking a toll on them. An aluminum deck won’t rot the way a steel deck will, but you still need to keep it clean.
Deck wash: This is a hose fitting mounted on top of the mower’s deck. When you’re done mowing, hook up a hose and run the mower to power wash the underside of the deck. We’ve had mixed results with these, but they’re better than just letting a mass of dried grass clippings accumulate.
Bag quality: More expensive mowers come with a more durable bag with more dust-blocking capability. If you bag a lot, especially leaves or other lawn debris in the fall, then you need a mower with a higher quality dust-blocking bag. Having said that, if you rarely bag, the standard one that comes with a mower will last you the life of the mower.
Also called wide-area mowers, machines in this subgroup of self-propelled help homeowners better reconcile their need for more power and speed with the fact that they may not have enough storage for a large machine. A typical residential walk mower has a single-blade deck that cuts a swath from 20 to 22 inches wide. Wide-cut mowers (built for homeowner use) have either a single blade or, more typically, a pair of blades, cutting from 26 to 30 inches with each pass. Some of these are rated for light commercial use and have larger decks, in the 32-inch range, and engines that start at 223 cc and go up to about 337 cc.
Wide-cut mowers are powered by gear or hydrostatic drive transmissions, and they have top speeds of about 4 to 6 miles per hour. At their fastest, they move so quickly you have to trot to keep up with them. Needless to say, they’re overkill for small yards; only opt for one of these if you’ve got a significant plot of land that you need to keep tidy, but not one so large that you’d be better off going with a full-on riding mower.
How We Tested
We put all mowers through the paces using our standard Popular Mechanics methodology: We cut turf grasses such as fescues and blue grass and rougher non-turf grasses like Timothy, clover, orchard grass, and wild oats, all in both normal and shin-deep heights. We mow uphill, downhill, and across the faces of hills. 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 push a mower up it. We mow damp and wet grass to test general cutting performance and whether clippings accumulate on the tires. And we cut dry and dusty surfaces to see how well the bag filters under less-than-optimal conditions. After all that mowing and analysis, we give each a rating from our star system.
3 Stars: Satisfactory
Good, improved ease of use
Very Good, additional versatility or power
Outstanding, more emphasis on some combination of power, cut quality, bagging, or versatility.
Category leading and possibly the best product in our test; performs as well as mowers with 4.5 stars with improved industrial design, ease of use, or durability.
Engine size: 160 cc | Deck size: 21 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge, bag | Drive: Rear | Non-lawn surfaces: Good | Uphill mowing: Very good | Sidehill mowing: Fair | Bagging: Very good
This is a beauty of a mower, with a cast aluminum deck and a smooth-running Honda GCV160 engine. It’s both an effective bagger and mulcher, even of moist grass, we found. Equipped with rear-wheel drive and the Personal Pace system (the farther you push the drive bar, the faster the mower goes), it’s an effective hill climber and moderately effective on sidehill cutting. It has 7.5-inch tires on all four corners, which causes this Toro to bump up and down a bit on washboard surfaces, but the good news is that it’s equipped with a far higher quality tire than we’re used to seeing these days. We didn’t notice any grass pickup on moist surfaces. Other features we like include its forward fold handle and a high-quality grass bag that loads through the handle, from the top.
Cub Cadet SC900
Engine size: 196 cc | Deck size: 23 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge, bag | Drive: Rear | 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 22), 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, though the lever has a tendency to rock when you’re 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 | Deck size: 21 inches | Functions: Mulch, bag | Drive: Rear | Non-lawn surfaces: Fair | Uphill mowing: Good | Sidehill mowing: Fair | Bagging: Outstanding
Our test’s most expensive (non-wide-cut) mower is the ultimate homeowner’s machine. The HRX217HZA is beautifully engineered and very powerful, with the largest engine of any mower we tried and the only machine equipped with a smooth-running hydrostatic transmission. Its fluid drive makes engaging, disengaging, and adjusting speed as smooth as it is 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 and gently rolling surfaces where it delivers a velvet-smooth cut surface without leaving a trace of waste grass. This Honda 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 | Deck size: 21 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge, bag | Drive: Rear | Non-lawn surfaces: Very good | Uphill mowing: Very good | Sidehill mowing: Very good | Bagging: Very good
The LC221RH ended up being the most versatile mower (and an exceptional value), 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. When we walked 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 as if from a piece of agricultural equipment. We liked everything about the mower except one thing: The tall rear tires can make it harder to access the rear adjustment levers.
Engine size: 190 cc | Deck size: 21 inches | Functions: Mulch, rear discharge, bag | Drive: Rear | Non-lawn surfaces: Very good | Uphill mowing: Outstanding | Sidehill mowing: Very good | Bagging: Very good
We had never heard of Masport mowers before this test, but after giving this rugged 22-inch machine a solid workout, we’re glad we found them. It really is a contractor-duty mower, as reflected by its rugged construction, such as the 14-gauge steel deck. Among its other stalwart features are a big professional-series Briggs & Stratton engine with a cast iron cylinder sleeve, a tube steel bumper in front of the engine, and the most robust single-lever deck height adjustment in this test. We also appreciated the decal applied right beside its lever that instructs the user about optimal deck heights for bagging and mulching, something we’ve never seen on any mower. Its 9-inch x 3-inch rear tires have thick, horizontal cleats, enabling good hill-climbing ability. Its cut quality is as outstanding as its bagging, as good as any mower we’ve seen. And it waltzed through tall grass like it was mowing a putting green. The mower comes with a blade on it and a spare mulching blade packed in the box. Both are thick and well-ground, reflecting the attention to detail that one would expect for a mower rated as contractor-duty.
Lawn Boy 17734
Engine size: 149 cc | Deck size: 21 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge (with accessory), bag | Drive: Rear | Non-lawn surfaces: Fair | Uphill mowing: Good | Sidehill mowing: Good | Bagging: Good
We’ve liked Lawn Boys going all the way back to the two-stroke version of these machines in the 1950s. Historically, these are light, nimble mowers well suited to normal suburban landscapes, if not rough areas. That’s still the case here. The 17734 is a fully featured machine, complete with electric start and linkage for two-lever height adjustment that weighs only 75 pounds. That’s due, somewhat, to the smaller engine. Like all Kohler 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.
Engine size: 163 cc | Deck size: 22 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge, bag | Drive: Rear | 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 has 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 | Deck size: 21 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge, bag | Drive: Rear | 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. And this one doesn’t disappoint. The TB300 XP has an engine on the small side, standard-size rear wheels, and a 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. Most impressive are the two-lever deck-height adjustment and an excellent tread configuration that boosts traction for uphill and sidehill mowing.
Toro TimeMaster 21199
Engine size: 223 cc | Deck size: 30 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge, bag | Drive: Rear |Non-lawn surfaces: Very good | Uphill mowing: Very good | Sidehill mowing: Good | Bagging: Outstanding
Toro pioneered the wide-cut residential mower, and that experience is evident here. This is a thoroughly engineered and well-behaved mower that’s surprisingly easy to use, especially for something that weighs as much as this does. Like the 20355 above, the TimeMaster employs Toro’s well-regarded Personal Pace speed control. Its top speed is 4.5 mph, making it among the fastest we tested. Other well-designed features: two-lever height control, a forward-fold handle for more compact storage, and a large grass bag. Its speed and ease of use make it suited to broad suburban lawns, less so for push-pull and pivoting cuts in tight spots. The Toro is a capable and powerful hill climber, we found, but did not do particularly well in side hill applications. Those are small asides, though. This is an outstanding product suited to the suburbs and rural properties.
Cub Cadet CC600
Engine size: 195 cc | Deck size: 28 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge bag | Drive: Rear | Non-lawn surfaces: Fair | Uphill mowing: Good | Sidehill mowing: Fair to poor| Bagging: Very good
This is plenty of mower for homeowner purposes, both in terms of its power and for its ability to shave a little time off your weekly cut. The Cub not only gets points for those, but also because you can equip it with dedicated mulching blades or blades for bagging. Both provide good cut quality. The bagging blades provide the necessary air flow to move grass clippings into the 2.3-bushel rear bag. So much so that it will fill the bag and pack it tight—and then fill the blower tube. It takes some experience to find the sweet spot when you need to empty the bag before the tube is plugged. Its other attractive features include a reliable push-button start and a self-charging battery, like your car’s, eliminating the need to plug the battery into a wall charger. Control the CC600’s ground speed by pushing forward on the pivoting drive bar. Stop the mower and release the drive bar (and operator control) and pick up some sticks or move lawn furniture–the engine keeps running. Finally, the fold-forward handle reduces the footprint in the garage or shed.
DR Power SP30
Engine size: 223 cc | Deck size: 30 inches | Functions: Mulch, side discharge bag | Drive: Rear | Non-lawn surfaces: Very good | Uphill mowing: Very good | Sidehill mowing: Very good | Bagging: Outstanding
The mower that was the most fun to use is this excellent product from DR Power. It’s simple to operate, thanks to a minimum of controls. Turn the key, pull the drive lever to make it go (all the way up to a very brisk pace), and pull back the blade engagement lever to cut. That’s all there is to it. It’s comparatively light, with weight distribution and geometry to make it surprisingly agile for such a big mower. It leaves a smooth cut and its bagging performance is outstanding. We attribute that to the air flow off the deck and into the bag, which is so good that when you go to remove the bag, you don’t find a loose pile of clippings, rather a tightly packed hay bale. Our test indicated that every morsel of grass goes into the bag. We also like the cast aluminum deck. Assuming it’s the correct alloy and you don’t abuse the machine, you should get many years out of it. We also like the single-height deck adjustment courtesy of a nice long lever with a big grip. We had only one dislike: That big engine needs a better muffler.
Worldlawn WY28S WY32S
Engine size: 337 cc | Deck size: 32 inches | Functions: Side discharge | Drive: Rear | Non-lawn surfaces: Good | Uphill mowing: Fair to poor | Sidehill mowing: Fair to poor | Bagging: N.A.
The Worldlawn is a rugged beast that does best galloping along straight cuts and on broad curves. It also does well chopping down tall and unruly non-turf grass and weeds. In that respect, it almost functions as a field and brush mower. The fact that it can easily handle such a variety of conditions, including some fairly harsh ones, make this a lot of machine for the money. But note that this isn’t a mower for the mechanically squeamish. Running on a hugely powerful Honda GXV340 engine, it requires that you almost run to keep up with it at full speed. It’s not an effective mower on hills. For one thing, it can pop a wheelie going up a steep incline. On side hills, it doesn’t track well. It’s best for flat and gently rolling terrain. This mower does make some demands on the operator, who should be physically fit and comfortable with a variety of controls (throttle, a speed shift lever, and lever-actuated steering). Speaking of which, to guide the mower, you press the lever on the side to which direction you want to go (right lever, steer right; left lever, steer left). It takes some practice to slow the mower, then deftly execute a nice clean turn and head back where you came from without wasted effort or a misaligned cut. So if you’re up to the job and your machinery preferences run a bit to the old school style of equipment, consider the Worldlawn.
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