Zero-turns have been all-the-rage for the last couple of years but as you know I have been very cautious about recommending the small residential zero-turns. Many of you have read my article: Do you really need a zero-turn mower? and decided a lap-bar style residential zero-turn is not the best choice. Well, with the introduction of zero-turns with steering wheels the time has come to revisit the list of concerns.
Instead lap bars to control the steering and movement of a zero-turn the Cub Cadet RZT-S and now the Toro SW – ExMark Quest series use a steering wheel and foot pedals.
I am going to go back through the 17 reasons why I can’t recommend small zero-turns to everyone and explain how the Cub Cadet and Toro steering wheel models have changed the discussion. Let’s get past the advertising hype and look at the facts and benefits.
This article is only going to discuss the residential steering wheel zero-turns. Both Toro and Cub Cadet have a heavier duty line (starting around $4200) that are designed for larger properties.
By the way, there is a riding mower with a steering wheel that may work better for you. When you get through reading this article head over to Husqvarna R 120S Review – A Better Zero Turn – At a Better Price before you make your final decision.
“If you don’t know how to drive a small zero-turn your lawn may end up looking like wild hogs played soccer overnight.”
Is a Steering Wheel Zero-Turn what you need?
Everyone has been trying to tell you that a zero-turn mower is what you need to mow your lawn. Now they are telling you steering wheel ZTRs are best. They tell you that you can mow your lawn in half the time. They tell you their’s is the best. But even the steering wheel zero-turns are not the answer for everyone. The homeowner (residential) models do not work on slopes, ditches or hills over 15 degrees. They are designed to mow lawns and little else. They can be more expensive to repair. They are more expensive than lawn tractors to buy. A 42 inch residential zero-turn that uses the same deck as your $1700 lawn tractor is $2700 or more. A good estate (landowner) zero-turn that will cut your mowing time in half is anywhere from $4000 to $15,000. So, let’s go through the facts and fiction about this breed of zero-turns.
Zero turns are really made for one purpose only, mowing grass. They mow quickly and will save you time trimming around obstacles. They are NOT designed to pull much. Yes, some have a hitch and you can pull a small yard cart or spreader but you will destroy the transmissions in them if you try to pull loads of dirt, firewood or a leaf vacuum.
Is a steering wheel zero-turn is what you need?
1. Steering wheel zero-turns give you a true zero-turn using a conventional steering wheel and foot controls. The engineering in the front steering is different from your lawn tractor and the mower will actually pivot around the rear wheel axis.
2. Steering wheel zero-turns use a front steering mechanism instead of castor wheels which increases your stability on slopes over a small residential zero-turn. They do turn differently than your lawn tractor but the steerable front wheels helps the mower stay on side slopes better than a residential lap bar ZTR.
3. Steering wheel zero-turns don’t have as long of a learning curve. Since you drive one more like your lawn tractor than a lap-bar zero-turn most of you will be able to get on and go. The key learning point will be to slow down to make a zero-turn.
4. Residential steering wheel zero-turns are built with the same materials and engineering design as your lawn tractor. They will last you years if taken care of them but they will only take as much abuse as your old lawn tractor. What that means is while you are learning to drive one it is very easy to damage a small zero-turn. They are designed to go easily around things but they are not designed to bang into trees, foundations, bird baths, curbs, rocks tree roots, etc.
5. The steering wheel zero-turns will not ride as rough as a residential zero-turn but the ride is still different from your lawn tractor. Because the steering system on these mowers needs to be robust to handle zero-turning there is more weight on the front than a residential zero-turn so they don’t have the head bobbing “bounce” of a small ZTR on rough lawns. Compared to a lawn tractor you sit more in the center of the mower so you will feel all four wheels when they hit a bump.
6. Be sure you sit on a steering wheel zero-turn before you buy and see if the seat is too low. The current residential models sit lower than a lawn tractor and they may give you a back-ache over extended use.
7. Small steering wheel zero-turns will turn better going downhill than a lap-bar zero-turn but are still limited to mowing 15 degree slopes or less. Don’t expect them to mow hillsides. A good rule of thumb is to try backing up the hill with your mower. If the rear wheels lose traction and start to spin the slope is too steep to mow up. If you have a walk out basement mow the slope diagonally – going downhill! Yes, it takes more time, but it is safer.
From a reader who owns a lap-bar zero-turn. He is a prime example of who these new steering wheel ZTR’s are for “I have lawn with slopes and hills. This unit climbs hills on a 30 degree angle no problem without tipping.(not recommending that anyone else do this) My tractor mower wont even make it up the hill. However, down hill or sloped mowing is a real chore for this machine. The inablilty to “steer” the front wheels makes it dive downwards, and you are going for a ride if you know what I mean. It will not stop. If you mow downhill, make sure there’s nothing dangerous at the end. I would not recommend mowing downhill unless its a very gradual slope. The small rear tires chew up the lawn easily if youre not careful as well. Flat lawn its a dream. Does a beautiful cut whatever you take it through. My terrain is rough and I’ve used this for 3 years now with no problems. Gas and oil changes is all. Haven’t even changed the fuel filter or spark plug yet. Make sure to use the included water cleanout for the deck! It works great and will keep the under deck clean so you get a great cut every time!” A Steering wheel zero-turn is exactly what he needs.
8. Small steering wheel zero-turns are delivered with too much air in the tires. Read the manual and adjust the air pressure to 12 lbs or so.
9. Small steering wheel zero-turns push hard when not running. The transmission release levers may be in front of the transmission instead of on the rear frame like your yard tractor. There are two release levers. I have a piece of rope that I tie to the front of the zero-turn and pull it when I need to move it without starting the engine.
10. Small steering wheel zero-turns will tear up your lawn. Stay away from units with less than 42 inch decks unless your lawn is flat and you have narrow gates you HAVE to go through. Be aware you will have to go very slow to make a zero-turn without tearing up your turf.
11. Small steering wheel zero-turn mowers will tear up and scratch anything behind them. If it comes with a rear hitch be aware that the hitch acts as can opener for chain link fences and particle board outbuildings. Also don’t buy a small zero-turn where the engine sticks out farther than the rear frame. If you get too close when you turn you can easily damage your engine.
12. Residential steering wheel zero-turn mowers should not be used to pull anything over 200 lbs. All the current models under $3500 use Hydro-Gear EZT transmissions are not designed to pull a yard cart, sweeper or leaf vac. In fact most of them do not come with a rear hitch for that reason. The transmissions are designed to give you years of use but they will burn out quickly if you try to pull loads like a yard cart filled with dirt or a leaf vac. If a dealer tries to tell you his zero-turn can pull anything and the mower is priced under $3000 ask him to include a life time warranty on the transmissions. If you would like a more detailed explanation just ask in the comments below.
13. Zero-turns are finish cut lawn mowers not field/pasture mowers. Even the $5000 to $14,000 commercial models are designed to mow your lawns beautifully but they don’t work well on grass/weeds over 6 inches. They don’t like stumps, rocks, dirt mounds any better than your lawn tractor. If you want to mow the pasture when the grass is over 6 inches you will have to mow the same area at least twice. I will always suggest a rough cut mower like the Acrease rough cut or a “Bush Hog” brush mower.
Only Five More Things To Consider
If you really, really want a zero-turn but someone who mows the lawn can’t get the hang of lap-bars then a steering wheel zero-turn is for you.
If you mow slopes (less than 15 degrees) these steering wheel zero-turns will not burn out the EZT-2200 transmissions. The front wheels help to hold the mower on the slope which greatly reduces the load on the transmissions. The transmission won’t over heat and burn out mowing slopes for extended periods of time.
If you promise not to pull heavy loads of firewood out of the timber. If you promise not to pull loads of dirt uphill to your next large landscape project. Then the steering wheel zero-turns will work for you.
If you just mow flat areas and everyone can drive a lap-bar zero-turn, spend the extra money these cost on a better, stronger zero-turn.
If you do a lot of running around with your yard cart and “who knows” what you put in the cart save yourself $1000 and buy a good lawn or yard tractor.
Is this enough information? Feel free to ask questions or leave comments below.
NOTE: I’m getting a jump on spring and some of these mowers will not be available until March 15th to buy. Please be patient
Reviews are coming soon!
Buy the Steering Wheel Zero-Turns mentioned here:
About $2699. Cub Cadet Lawn Mowers RZT S 42 in. 22 HP V-Twin Kohler Dual Hydrostatic Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Steering Wheel Control RZT-S 42
About $2799. Toro Lawn Mowers TimeCutter SW3200 32 in. 452cc Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Smart Park 74780
About $2799 CA Version. Toro Lawn Mowers TimeCutter SW3200 32 in. 452 cc Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Smart Park 74780C
About $2799. Cub Cadet Lawn Mowers 46 in. Fabricated Deck 23 HP V-Twin Dual-Hydrostatic Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Cub Connect Bluetooth RZT-L 46 FAB
About $2999. Toro Lawn Mowers TimeCutter SW4200 42 in. 24.5 HP V-Twin Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Smart Park 74784
About $2999 CA Version. Toro Lawn Mowers TimeCutter SW4200 42 in. 24.5 HP V-Twin Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Smart Park 74784C
About $2999. Cub Cadet Lawn Mowers RZT S 46 in. 23 HP V-Twin Dual Hydrostatic Gas Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Steering Wheel Control RZT-S 46
About $3199. Toro Lawn Mowers TimeCutter SW5000 50 in. 24.5 HP V-Twin Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Smart Park 74790
About $3199. Cub Cadet Lawn Mowers RZT S 50 in. 23 HP V-Twin Dual Hydrostatic Gas Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Steering Wheel Control RZT-S 50
About $3399. Cub Cadet Lawn Mowers 54 in. Fabricated Deck 25-HP V-Twin Dual-Hydro Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Steering Wheel Control RZT-S 54 FAB
About $4299. Toro Lawn Mowers TimeCutter SWX4250 42 in. Fab 24.5 HP V-Twin Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Smart Park 74787C
About $4699. Toro Lawn Mowers TimeCutter SW5000 50 in. 24.5 HP V-Twin Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Smart Park 74790C
I see you mentioned the toughtorq 2200 series transmission. What about the 2800 series? I planned on getting the cub ’50 model with the 2800 series transmission, because i thought it would be better for my hills and pull behind yard sweeper. My JD la150 moans at me when trying to go up my hill, so i have to go diagonally to make it to the front yard ( walk out basement type of scenario). So obviously I need transmission that won’t struggle. I struggle with lapbars. Tend to go in circles lol.
Hi David, I’m really excited about the 2022 Cub Cadet ZTS2 50. I can’t wait to get my hands on one.
I would like a steering wheel, zero turn mower for Christmas. I currently mow with a 54″ Husqvarna garden tractor and my husband says that the zero turn with steering wheel will not turn any easier around the many trees in our yard. I mow approximately 2 acres of lawn. I am hoping you can help settle our mower disagreement. Thank you!
Hi Colleen, Cub Cadet is the only brand who has steering wheel ZTR’s right now. They have the RZT SX 54 residential and the Z-Force S 54 Prosumer.
These mowers won’t let you get under bushes any better than the garden tractor. They will cut around trees better because they turn a lot tighter and the uncut circle they leave is a lot smaller than with the garden tractor. The front wheels are tied directly to the rear transmissions so they don’t “push” or scuff your lawn when making tight turns around the trees. (if you mow the same way around trees with your garden tractor it eventually leaves grooves in the dirt around the trees. The steering wheel ZTRs don’t do that.) In addition, they will cut faster and better than the Husqvarna. The RZT SX 54 residential will save about 15% mowing time but the Z-Force will be able to mow your lawn is about half the time of what it currently takes you with the garden tractor.
Hi Paul. I have a Toro timecutter sw 4200 with steering wheel. Bought it in October 2017. My problem is it very hard and stiff when I turn to make a zero turn to mow.I have half acre and it is flat with trees and flower beds and by the time I am done mowing my back is sore and aches from turning the wheel for a zero turn. Is this normal? The dealer told me when I bought it that it may take a while for the wheel to not be so stiff during a zero turn. I wonder if other people have this problem?
Hi Ed, I don’t know about others but my Exmark suffers from the same problem. there are no grease zerks to lubricate the front so I was spraying chain lube on all the gears under the front. It helped for a while but it soon started to get stiff again. Here’s how I finally fixed it.
There are two black plastic caps on the front corner of the mower. Under those caps is a bolt and washer. That bolt holds the front wheels on.
Raise the front of the mower off the ground (I use a come-a-long hung from the rafters in my garage) Turn the wheels straight ahead. Pry the caps off – screwdriver or pipe pliers. When you remove that bolt the wheel assembly will drop out – I hold it with my other hand as it drops. Remove it.
Look down into the hole and you will see two brass bushings. I fill the gap between the bushings with grease. I had some good moly grease but any gear grease will work. I used a wooden stick to pack it in the gap. Put the wheel back in place making sure it goes into the gears so it’s pointed straight ahead. After you put the washer and bolt back in, wipe off the excess grease. (Yes, it’s messy) Put the cap back on.
Do the other side. You will be amazed at how well it now steers. One other thing. I run at least 14 psi in the fronts so the front tires are pretty hard. It rides a little rough but it also helps the steering. Good Luck!
Paul I would just like to say I bought the TORO SW5400. I paid less than 3500.00. That was over internet no tax shipped to my door. Hey this thing will mow a slope that tipped over a tractor rider of a previous owner, and sent my lawn tractor into the creek several times. It rides like a UTV and low, it is never tippy, you don’t even have to sit on the uphill fender, and I can steer it up the slope or down without spin. I’m a proficient ATV rider in the dunes so following lines on a dune is no problem, and neither is a lawn. This thing rocks, I mow my three acre home with it and the family ranch which can be up to fifteen acres of finish mowing and mowing some heavy tall stuff around the barns in the flint hills of SE Kansas on the Oklahoma line, so grass grows thick and head high after a couple rains. Hustler is real popular here and I priced one and a Kubota. It came down to the Kubota or the Toro. The Toro was half price because there was no tax or shipping. It had similar drives within 1/2 a horse, no brainer I bought the TORO.
Hi Larry, I’m really glad you like you new Toro. The steering wheel version is turning out to be one of the best mower for homeowners with slopes. I would like to remind you to be very cautious around water. If you have a ROPS installed be sure to have it up and locked.
Here is the Toro Safety Tips Brochure: Zero Turn Mower Safety Tips
Toro has a $400 rebate on most ZTR’s until October 30. Now is a great time to get a great deal.
looking to upgrade from a Poulan Pro tractor mower to a zero-turn and have narrowed my choice to Cub Cadet RZT S42. I mow about 1.5 acre with less than 15 degree slope. I will like to tow a 15-25 gallon sprayer. What should I be concerned about? What year were the RZT made? I am up in Canada.
@ ardile, I think the RZT first came out in 2013. I suggest the 46 inch. Why? because the 42 inch wheelbase is wider than the 42 inch deck.
Try to keep your total towing weight down to about 300 lbs and you will be OK.
I have 1 acre to mow and lot of hills I want to purchase a steering wheel zero turn with 54 cut. Toro or cub cadet? Is it worth going to the Zforce. I can tow my cart of wood for my wood burner with my renters itv but I prefer to use my zero turn.
Hi Jerry, If you want to pull firewood the Z-Force is the best choice. Remember a ZTR, especially the Z-Force cuts a lot faster than a tractor. You may not need to go to 54 inches. A 48 inch ZTR will cut 20% faster than a 54 inch garden tractor.
Paul – Thank you very much for the response. I really like the Cub Z force with the steering wheel. I hear that the ones with a steering wheel are more stable, especially on slopes. The previous owner had a regular Z force that he said worked great. I was considering the 54″ cut thinking it would be a little more maneuverable. Thanks again – very helpful
I just bought a house on 3.4 acres with about 15 deg. slope in the front yard. I was considering a Cub Cadet Steering wheel ZTR mower, either 54″ or 60″. I always thought of Cub Cadets as high quality machines but have been reading that they seem to suffer from the need for frequent repairs. What goes wrong with them an why is CC so prone to breakdowns? Thanks
Hi Scott, 1. Cub Cadet got away from their heritage from 2010 to 2014 and built a lawn tractor that had more problems than most of the other brands. It specifically had deck belt issues, didn’t cut well and didn’t last long. They realized they made a mistake and went back and re-engineered a new lawn/garden tractor from scratch. It does not have problems. In fact it is rapidly becoming the best tractor on the market for the price.
2. People have a habit of buying too small of a zero-turn and then complaining when it fails early. In your case for example, you should buy a Z-FORCE® S 60 or a Z-FORCE® SX 60 KW. Your slope is the problem. You need the heavier-duty ZT2800 or ZT3100 transmissions.
The less expensive RZT® S 54 models with the EZT2200 transmissions will not hold up.
I live in SW Pennsylvania and it’s very hilly. I mow about 10 lawns(all about 5000 sq. ft.) and have been using a walk behind but now have knee problems and need to look to a riding mower. How do you think the ztr – sw model will work for this? I’d like to stay away from the high cost of commercial mowers.
Hi Jim, so you are mowing about an acre a week. My first caution is if the slopes are more than 15 degrees it’s unsafe to mow with a rider. The steering wheel ZTR’s will handle slopes better than the lap-bar models but they will still tip over if the slope is too steep.
If the hills are too steep, have you thought about a 30 inch walk-behind? The larger deck will save some walking. Or you could go with a 36-48 inch commercial walk behind. You can get a sulky for them so you can stand or ride behind them. https://www.toro.com/en/professional-contractor/commercial-mowers/36-t-bar-30674
I have a half acre with a lot of trees that takes too long to mow with my self propelled 21″ mower. It’s fairly flat but still want to stay away from those 32″ ZTR.
If I’m going to make the investment, I’m willing to spend a little more and get something my wife can use and hopefully take a little abuse. I’m considering the eXmark S-series 42″ front steer model with the fabricated deck. Is buying the eXmark brand over the Toro going to get me much more? Also I have lots of trees so I want to get a lawn sweeper and considering something with >20 cu ft of capacity. I know the ones I’m looking at are like 90lbs so I want to know the mower can tow a full capacity lawn sweeper.
Also from my research the eXmark has two options for engines… a Kohler and a eXmark engine (QSS708GEM4220 vs QSS720GKC4220 model numbers). Any insight on what the best bet would be?
Finally have you done reviews of lawn sweepers?
From Central Ohio.
Hi Justin, I did the research last year on Sweepers and bought this one for myself through Amazon: Agri-Fab 45-0492 Lawn Sweeper, 44-Inch, I like that I can offset the hitch, the pickup height is very easy to adjust, the catcher comes off the sweeper easily and folds up to put in the shed. It’s also a high speed sweeper so I can buzz around the yard at full speed and it will still pick up grass, pine cones and pine needles.
Yes, please stay away from the 32 inch mowers. I have a rather long list of why they should not be sold.
The ExMark has a better seat. The ExMark has a different deck than the Toro but that’s just something Toro/ExMark does. Even thought the mowers come off the same assembly line they still design their own decks. Which one is better? The both cut better than most other brands.
The SWX Toro and the ExMark can both handle a sweeper, lawn cart and aerator.
The Toro engine is good. they spent a lot of time designing an engine that will last considerably longer than last years crop of residential engines. The Kohler is also the new design so….I would pick either one.
I am looking at Cub Cadet RZT S46 FAB. The main reason I am considering a steering wheel is the increased capacity for towing. I do like/need to carry some logs here and there some dirt for my garden. Do you know by how much is the towing capacity increased. I live on a 2 acres ( some small hills) I like something heavy duty in the 3000$ price range. I am debating between lap bars and steering wheel.
Great site! My wife and I bought a home last fall on a little over two acres. It’s flat, very flat, but the large back is a slightly lower on the left corner(it finally dried after the rainy period we had) and it is rutted from tractor tires during the wet spell. I’m working to get those smoothed. There are several planted trees and shrubs. The old craftsman LT1000 I dug out of my uncle’s shed takes way too long About three months ago, we found out that we are expecting our second child… Our first will be 15 years old this month. To complicate matters, about a month ago I found out that my health will be deteriorating over the next few months. I loved the Raven 7100 when I first saw it, but a little nervous about the technology and the cost is about as high as I can go. My wife and 15 year old daughter will inherit the yard work when I’m gone. Steering wheel zero turns are appealing because of their inexperience. What would you recommend? There is a cub cadet dealer in town. Thank you!
New Albany, MS
Hi Ray, A good fit for 2 acres is the Cub Cadet RZT® S 50. The deck is large enough to get the job done quickly but not too big so that you get stuck a lot in your softer areas.
Yes, if you can drive a car you can drive the Cub Cadet steering wheel ZTR’s!
#6 my problem with current zero turns the seating position is too low and at 6″4 with a bad lower back I can see this hurting after awhile.
I will stick with the current craftsman zts6000 which sits upright and comfortable though I suspect why they did away with that style
Good article. I have been very concerned about what you have said in regards to towing with EZT. I contacted the New Zealand Big Dog Alpha supplier today. Found out that the EZT is covered in the 7 year warranty. That gives me more piece of mind that if they are going to go bung it will be in the first 4 years or so. Get all my towing done in those early years then I guess!
@Scotty, Yes, there are a few manufactures willing to really stand behind their products and Big Dog is one. I spent some time at GIE-EXPO really looking the Alpha over and it has a many little details that puts it in the top 5 list for residential zero-turns. With the 7 year warranty it’s hard to look at anything else.
Thanks for the article Paul. I think I’ll ignore the dealers suggestion of the Toro Timecutter SW as it won’t be what I want for my lawn. On with my search for the perfect mower!
Maybe you can make a suggestion. Just bought a house on 1 acre. Including about 300 feet of drainage ditch to mow (they are gentle enough sloped to mow the sides as the previous owner did that). I have about a dozen trees to mow around including fruit trees. I’d like to be able to mulch and the ability to pull a cart/dethatcher or put a snow blade on the front would be a plus. I like the idea of the Raven MPV7100 for its hybrid design, but not the $4k price tag. I’d be a lot more comfortable in the $2k range. The Husquvarna RS120 is almost perfect, but can’t mulch. Any suggestions?
Phil in Wichita, KS
@Phil, Yes, I do have a couple of suggestions for a 42 inch lawn tractor but the one I think will work best for you I can’t tell you about until April 1st. It will be priced a $1999.
Sounds like the setup to an April Fools joke about the dream mower for a crazy low price. The reality then being that of what I want doesn’t exist for the price. Is that about right?
@Phil, No, I forgot about April Fool’s. This will be introduced to the world before the 15th of April. Hopefully they will let me be the first to mention it.
@Paul, How soon do you think this yet-to-be-introduced mower will be available to me, the consumer, once it is announced?
@Phil, April 15th.
Looking forward to your big announcement tomorrow (if you are still introducing the new mower)!
Hi Phil, The announcement is live now. I just couldn’t release the article a April Fool’s Day 🙂