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 $2799 CA Version. Toro Lawn Mowers TimeCutter SW3200 32 in. 452 cc Zero-Turn Riding Mower with Smart Park 74780C