The Best Zero Turn Mower Buyer’s Guide – The best ZTR for you is not that hard to figure out.

The Best Zero Turn Mower Buyer’s Guide – How to Pick The Best ZTR For You!

Zero Turn Mower Buyer’s Guide Introduction

This guide will help you begin to sort through the differences for the hundreds of zero-turn mowers on the market so you can decide the best brand and model for you.

Buying a zero turn lawn mower is similar to shopping for your everyday vehicle. Some people just want a cheap car that gets them around town, some people want a luxury vehicle that gives them a smooth ride and some people need a heavy duty pickup.

So, there are Zero Turn Mowers that will mow your lawn as cheaply as possible. The next quality level will cut your grass well and will also do a few other chores around your yard. Others, will mow your lawn as quickly as possible while making your ride as comfortable as that of your car. In other words, Zero turning radius (ZTR) lawn mowers are all similar because they all cut grass, but they just do it with varying degrees of comfort, speed, quality of components and longevity.

Finding the right zero turn mower for you can be very difficult to figure out on your own. Read this article and it won’t be that hard to figure out. 

There are many wonderful zero-turn mowers available that you have never heard of them. You only hear of the largest brands. Although there are hundreds of mowers available to buy but there is no one organization that lists all the models – let alone reviews and rates them.  For example, Consumer Reports only rates the entry level zero turns and lawn tractors. The other 90% of the mowers available are not rated anywhere online. There have been one or two websites that have tried but their rating systems do not reflect the actual quality or performance of the mower. The rest of the websites only rate the particular brands that they sell and don’t represent the market as a whole. Even I don’t have the time to list all the models out there so will only look at the entry level, estate and semi-pro models that work well for your residential lawns. That said, 

The industry generally classifies every zero turn mower into one of five grades of quality, three types and two-styles. No, it’s not that hard to figure out. 

Quality: Economy, Estate/MidGrade, Semi-Pro, Commercial, Industrial. I’ll explain the different quality levels below. I’ll also play Myth-Buster to help you wade through all the advertising hype in the Economy and Estate quality.

Types: Lap-Bar, Steering Wheel/Joy-Stick, Stand-on. Lap-Bar is the most common and uses two levers that fold in front of you to drive and steer the mower. Steering Wheel ZTR’s drive just like your car with a foot pedal and steering wheel. Joy-Stick models drive like a video game. Stand-on mowers use two levers and are used by professional contractors. They are highly maneuverable and used for production mowing.

Grillo Front Deck ZTR.

Grillo Front Deck ZTR.

 Styles: Mid-Deck, Front Deck. Mid-deck mowers are the most common and you sit over the deck. Professional Contractors also use a front deck mower where the deck sticks out the front of the mower. The front deck mower is highly maneuverable and mainly used for high quality mowing applications.

Note: Zero-Turn mowers are designed to mow lawns. They are designed to mow weekly or bi-weekly growth. They are NOT designed to mow pastures, timber, fields and paddocks. They are NOT designed to mow grass/weeds 12 inches to 6 feet tall. Mowing grass over 12 inches can/will damage deck spindles, belts, tires and bearings on even the most expensive ZTR’s.

Pastures, fields, paddocks and timber with grass and brush taller than 12 inches require a rotary cutter or rough cut mower. Yes, I know many of the ZTR’s appear heavy duty enough but please don’t blame the mower or the brand when your mower requires $500 worth of repairs because you needed to mow your horse pasture.

NEVER, I repeat never mow a slope with a pond or drop-off at the bottom of the slope. Even the most expensive ZTR’s can lose traction and slide down the slope. Plan on a walk-behind mower or nature area for those types of slopes.

I also wrote and article you may want to read: Do you really need a zero-turn mower? 17 reasons why you may not want one.

So Which One Is Best For You? I will go through the different quality levels in the next sections to help you decide.

Sizing Your Mower Deck:

  1. Use the chart below to give you an idea of what size to get. I do suggest going with a smaller deck if you want the best cut possible but do not go less than 42 inches. Bigger is not always better when figuring out what size deck you can use on your yard.  Decks over 48 inches will cut larger areas quicker but they don’t cut as evenly from side to side as a 42 or 46 inch deck.
  2. Zero-turn mowers less than 42 inches will be very unstable on slopes. The small 32-34 inch zero-turns also have traction problems when turning and will tear up your yard. If you have gates that require a smaller ZTR but you also have slopes I suggest making the gates bigger. These small zero-turn mowers take a lot of practice to use because they don’t have good traction in the rear and are notorious for tearing up your lawn. They are also very top-heavy compared to the larger zero-turns and in my opinion are not safe to operate on any type of slope. You can actually tip one over going around the roots of an old tree. Yes, they sell a 32 inch mower – but that doesn’t mean you should buy it.
  3. Go around your yard and measure between landscape features like trees landscape beds and buildings. A 42 inch deck,  requires 48 inches with discharge chute down so areas narrower than that will have to be mowed with a push mower or string trimmer. A 42 or 46 inch deck will fit in the back of a full-size pickup.
  4. 48″-50” Decks. A 48 inch deck will mow your lawn about 20% faster than a 42 inch so they are a good choice for one to three acres. With the discharge chute down a 48 inch deck needs about 54 inches to go between an obstruction. The wheelbase is typically wider than a 42 inch ZTR so it can handle slight to moderate slopes better.
  5. 52″-54″ Decks. If you have the room between your obstructions or have large open areas to mow a 50-54 inch deck will save you 30-40% time over a 42 inch. Economy models tend to “flop” around so the cut will not be as even as a smaller deck.  The estate and semi-pro models will cut well.
  6. 60″-61″ decks. This size is a very common size for landscape professionals. The brands all engineer these decks to cut well and fast. With a 25 HP or larger Pro or commercial grade engine these decks will cut up to 5 acres an hour.
  7. 72″ decks. I don’t recommend 72 inch decks unless you have 5 acres or more of flat, smooth lawn. These are best suited for large scale commercial properties where the quality of cut is not as important as the quantity
  8. Slopes steeper than 15 degrees will have to be mowed with a walk behind or string trimmer.
  9. If you have plenty of room to mow I now suggest a 46 inch deck for 1 acre yards. Today’s 46 inch decks all cut very well.

Up to 1 Acre = 42” Deck
1-2 Acres = 42, 46” Deck – Give you the best cut for Residential ZTR’s
2+ Acres = 48, 50, 52, 54″ Deck – Most common sizes for Residential and Estate ZTR’s
2+ Acres = 60, 61″ Deck – Give you the best cut for Estate and Commercial ZTR’s
2+ Acres = 72″ Deck – I don’t recommend this size EXCEPT for large, flat properties.

1. Economy Zero Turn Mower. Some Websites call this Entry-Level

Two-Types: Lap-Bar, Steering Wheel.

Styles: Mid-Deck.

Good For: Smooth Lawns With Light Slopes

Economy zero-turns are meant to directly replace your old lawn tractor. They have the same quality and features as today’s mid-priced lawn/yard tractors but will mow your lawn faster. Six brands now have Steering Wheel models that drive like your economy car  – the rest all use the Lap-Bar steering system that makes the zero turn lawn mower a lot more agile than your old lawn tractor.

Myth-Buster No. 1: “These dependable – yet affordable – mowing machines will cut a yard twice as fast as a lawn tractor. They feature smaller, less-powerful engines with smaller gas tanks, maxing out at 6-7 miles per hour.”  One manufacture started this mess by advertising in 2012 “that you can cut your mowing time almost in half.*” What that actually means is using their lap-bar zero-turn you can mow your lawn a lot faster than you could with their lawn tractor. (They no longer make the lawn tractor that was used in that claim.)

John Deere 48

Economy Lap Bar Zero Turn

In reality, most economy zero-turns use the same decks and engines as the mid-priced lawn tractors so they mow in a straight line at the same speed. But having two transmissions allows them to maneuver faster around obstructions and turn around faster at the end of a mowing run (zero-turn). In addition they go around trees and corners better than a conventional lawn tractor so you may save some time when trimming. Just like a lawn tractor they will run around your yard at 5-6 mph but they actually only mow well at 3-4 mph – just like your lawn tractor. If you have a lot of landscaping and other obstructions in your lawn they can save you up to 45% in the time it takes to mow your lawn.

If a lap-bar zero-turn looks too complicated to learn or you are not willing to spend the extra money for the second transmission on a steering wheel ZTR the Craftsman Yard Tractors and Craftsman Pro Series Lawn Tractors with the Turn-Tight steering will mow and trim your lawn almost as fast. They use a special front steering that makes the lawn tractors almost as agile as a zero-turn mower.

* Watch this video to see the original advertising claim: Toro Time Cutter

Myth-Buster No. 2: “entry-level zero turn lawn mowers are constructed with less expensive components like stamped vs. welded decks and steel vs. cast iron spindle materials. They’re typically not designed for daily use, but they will still cut your weekend mowing time in half.” Economy zero-turn mowers use the same deck components as the lawn tractor they are designed to replace. If you mow your normal suburban lawn once a week and your old lawn tractor lasted 10-15 years, this economy zero-turn will last as long. There are other zero turn mowers that are built for heavy-duty and commercial use. Those types use heavier components like cast iron spindles and welded decks.

Transmissions: All economy zero-turn mowers use two hydrostatic transmissions instead of one like a lawn tractor. The transmissions are as durable as the transmissions in your lawn tractor so you can pull the normal stuff like a yard cart, small aerator, and dethatcher. I don’t recommend pulling a 400-600 lb lawn roller or 500 plus loads in your yard cart. That extra transmission adds about $400 to the cost. Typically economy zero-turn mowers cost $2200 to $3200.

Craftsman 50 20410

Economy Steering Wheel Zero Turn

 Myth-Buster No. 3: “Entry-level models are ideal for the weekend warrior wanting the excitement of a zero turn mower without a professional price tag.” Written by a true advertising copy-writer.  The only time I have ever been “excited” using a zero-turn was sliding down a slope towards a pond. 

Lap-Bar zero-turns are the most agile and are easy to learn to use for most people. They give you the most time savings. Steering wheel zero-turns are more expensive but anyone can use them because they drive just like your car. The steering wheel versions give you the advantages of a zero turn mower without tearing up your lawn.

If an Economy Zero Turn Is Best For You go here to select the best size and brand for you: Economy Zero-Turns

2. Estate or Heavy-Duty Residential Zero Turn Mower. Some Websites call this Mid-Grade

Two-Types: Lap-Bar/Joy Stick, Steering Wheel.

Styles: Mid-Deck.

Good For: Smooth-ish Lawns With Light/Medium Slopes

This is the most popular segment of zero-turns for homeowners. These mowers are an upgrade over your old lawn or garden tractor. This quality level of zero turn mower will easily cut your mowing time in half because they are more agile than a lawn or garden tractor and are designed to mow much faster than your tractor. These mowers will mow well at 5-7 mph.

Unfortunately, Consumer Reports and the other Review Websites do not test and evaluate these models. I don’t have the cash to buy and test these myself, but I do have years of experience listening to owners and using them myself. I can help you decide on the best model for you. 

Ariens IKON 52

Lap Bar Estate Zero Turn

When you increase the speed that you are mowing by 40% over the Economy models,  you also have to increase the strength of the mower considerably. If you don’t the mower will quickly self-destruct.  Estate zero-turns use thicker steel for the frame and decks are built stronger. They use heavier-duty components than the entry level models. Because of that they will last a lot longer. If you size the mower to your yard this grade will easily last 15 years.  Typically Estate zero-turn mowers cost $3199 to $4999.

Being heavier they will also handle bumps and rough spots better. They typically have better tires and seats to smooth out the ride.

Decks: Decks in this class generally use a metal that is too thick to stamp with a hydraulic press so these decks are fabricated out of sheet steel. Most decks have extra wear bars welded to the sides and front so they will take more of a beating than a stamped deck.

Transmissions: A heavy-duty residential zero turn has heavier duty transmissions. These transmissions can handle hills and the increased speed without overheating. You can pull an aerator, fertilizer spreader and heavy duty cart without quickly ruining these transmissions.

Frame and Wheels: Like the decks the frames, axles, casters and wheels use thicker steel and will take more use and abuse than the economy class. If you use this class on your own lawn it will last you a long time.

Country Clipper

Joy Stick Estate Zero-Turn

Myth-Buster No. 1: You will have a wider variety of engine choices in this class but the engines are still rated as residential or “Pro” grade. The brand of the engine in this class does not mean a better engine so don’t let a dealer or another website lead you to believe that their mower is better because it has a certain brand engine on it.  The quality of the engine is based on what’s on the inside – not what brand is stuck on the outside.

Lap-Bar zero-turns are the most agile and are easy to learn to use for most people. They give you the most time savings. Steering wheel zero-turns are more expensive but anyone can use them because they drive just like your car.  One company, Country Clipper uses a patented single joy-stick control that works very well. They also have step and hand rail options. I recommend the Country Clipper to anyone who is handicapped or has a hard time getting on and off a zero-turn.

If a Heavy Duty Residential Zero Turn Is Best For You go here to select the best size and brand for you: Heavy Duty Residential Zero Turns

3. Entry Level Commercial Zero Turn Lawn Mower. Some Websites call this Semi-Pro.

Two Types: Lap-Bar/Joy Stick, Steering Wheel. (I’d like to see them bring back Stand-ons in this grade.)

Styles: Mid-Deck.

Good For: Smooth to Bumpy Lawns With Medium Slopes

Entry Level Commercial zero-turns are good machines for homeowners with 5 or more acres. They are the best choice for farm lawns and acreages where vehicles and farm machinery drive over the lawns. They are very popular with new landscape contractors who mow 10-20 homeowner lawns a week.  Typically Entry Level Commercial zero-turn mowers cost $4999 to $7999.

Bad Boy Elite

Mid Deck Zero Turn

Being heavier they will also handle bumps and rough spots better. They typically have heavier gauge steel frames, larger fuel tanks, and stronger transmissions than the Estate class. They are built well enough to handle the daily beating of taking them on an off a trailer when mowing a few homeowner lawns for hire.  Most have thicker, high back seats to smooth out the ride.  They don’t have cruise control but have armrests and use hydraulic dampeners attached to the steering levers so your shoulder muscles don’t get sore.

Entry Level Commercial zero-turns use Pro duty engines that last 2-3 time longer than Economy zero-turn engines. Some also have commercial engine options and those engines will easily run 2000 hours and longer without major repairs. Again, the brand name of the engine does not designate the quality. Briggs & Stratton, Kohler and Kawasaki all make dependable Pro and Commercial engines in this class.

Most Semi-Pro mowers can mow up to 8 mph and the 60 inch size can mow 4-5 acres an hour.

If an Entry Level Commercial Zero Turn Is Best For You go here to select the best size and brand for you: Entry Level Commercial Zero Turn

4. Professional Zero-Turn Mower. Commercial Zero Turn, Professional Contractor

Three Types: Lap-Bar/Joy Stick, Stand-On, Steering Wheel.

Styles: Mid-Deck, Front Deck.

Good For: Smooth to Rough Lawns With Medium Slopes. Most will mow in all weather conditions.

Toro Stand-On

Stand-On Zero Turn

Commercial Mowers are outside the scope of Commercial zero turn mowers are big and fast. Some can mow at 12 mph in all weather conditions. Professional mowing contractors use this grade because they can mow 40-50 hours a week, all year long and the machines will still last years.

Typically Commercial zero-turn mowers cost $6999 to $17,999.

All Commercial zero turns have thicker, high back seats to smooth out the ride.  Some can be equipped with air-ride seats or vibration damping operator platforms. More and more models now come standard with electronic fuel injection and are more fuel efficient than carbureted engines.

They are fun to drive.

Front Deck Zero Turns follow the ground contours the best. If your lawn has a lot of berms to mow over or if you want the best possible cut the front deck ZTRs are your best choice. There is even a front deck zero-turn small enough to fit into an elevator so you can mow and bag your roof top lawn in downtown New York. The Walker brand has a very low center of gravity so it mows slopes better than the mid-deck models.

Stand-on mowers are particularly agile and great for properties that have many landscaped areas, slopes, and berms to mow around. They are also shorter than the commercial sit-down mowers so landscape contractors can fit more on a trailer. Stand-on mowers are my favorite way to mow.

Walker C

Front Deck Zero Turn

Here is a list of the most popular brands. The list is sorted by popularity – not by the numbers sold.

Exmark, Scag, Toro, Walker, John Deere, Kubota, Ferris, Grasshopper, Hustler, Wright, BOB-CAT, Gravely, Dixie Chopper, Husqvarna, Snapper Pro, Cub Cadet Commercial, Bush Hog, Bad Boy, Country Clipper, Big Dog.

In addition to this list there are another 20 or so other U.S. manufactures including Mean Green Mower, Jacobson, and Bradley.

So Which Professional Zero Turn Is Best For You? Selecting the best Professional model is a combination of selecting not only the best mower but also selecting a dealer that can get you parts and service quickly so you can keep your machine out on the lawns making money. Please see your local Commercial Mower Dealer for these models. 

5. Industrial Mower. Government, Sports Fields, Municipalities, Golf.

Styles: Mid-Deck, Front Deck, Rear Steer

Typically Industrial zero-turn mowers cost $15,999 to $149,999. Many of these mowers can easily mow up to 150 acres a day!  These are specialty mowers and typically there is only one dealer per state that has the expertise to help you pick the right unit for your property or municipal projects. There are only a few brands that make these large area mowers with Jacobson, Hustler and Toro produce the highest quality machines.

Hustler Super104_2015

Industrial Zero-Turn


Industrial Rear Steer Zero Turn

So Which Industrial, Government, Sports Fields, Municipalities, Golf Zero Turn Is Best For You? Please see your regional Sports Fields, Municipalities and Golf dealer for these models. 

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