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Zero turn vs lawn tractor: How to pick the right rider lawn mower for you

Zero turn vs lawn tractor: How to pick the right rider lawn mower for you
(Image credit: Home Depot)

There are four main types of riding lawn mowers: rear-engine riding lawn mowers, lawn tractors, garden tractors, and zero-turn riding lawn mowers. These are basically categories for how powerful the riding lawn mower is and the sort of ground maintenance tasks they can undertake. If you’re in the market for a rider lawn mower, you’re considering making a big investment. Therefore it’s important to know the difference between rear riding lawn mowers, lawn tractors, zero-turn riding lawn mowers and garden tractors so that you pick the right model for you. 

For each model, you need to consider the price, speed, cutting-width and power. We’ve broken down the pros and cons of each model in our guide below. When you’re done here, read up on what to consider when buying a rider lawn mower, and take a look at our guide to the best rider lawn mowers

Rear-engine riding lawn mowers

Rear-engine riding lawn mowers

(Image credit: Home Depot)

Rear-engine riding lawn mowers are the most basic, entry level models. These are typically powered by a rear engine, and have a front loaded cutting deck. These riding lawn mowers are designed to bridge the gap from a standard push-along lawn mower to a lawn tractor. They are best for areas of land that measure an acre or less in length.

Rear-engine riding lawn mowers are designed to just cut the grass and nothing else. The widest cutting length to expect with this kind of riding lawn mower is 30 inches. The cost of these riding lawn mowers typically ranges between $700 and $1,200. These models generally have lever operated transmission, which means you have to take your hands off the wheel, giving you less control.

Rear-engine riding lawn mowers are becoming increasingly less popular, and most buyers prefer a zero-turning riding lawn mower for their ability to turn on a dime.

Advantages of rear-engine riding lawn mowers

These types of riding lawn mowers might be entry level machines, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any advantages. Out of all the riding lawn mower types, these are usually the easiest to use, mostly due to their design. 

The front cutting deck, central seat place and rear engine means that you can control the area of the lawn you’re mowing with greater ease than with other types of riding lawn mowers. The front cutting deck also helps the lawn mower access areas that other models can’t, like under benches or around shrubs and bushes. 

They're also a lot more compact than other types of riding lawn mower. This makes them a great choice for people who have small gardens or who don’t have a lot of space for storage. 

The most obvious advantage is price - they are meant to provide a ride-on lawn mower experience for a lower price. 

Disadvantages of rear-engine riding lawn mowers 

Most of the disadvantages of a riding lawn mower stem from them being an entry level model. The engines are not as powerful, the cutting deck has less width, they don't have as many accessories, and they don't have comfort features like a cup holder or padded steering wheel.

Should you buy a rear-engine riding lawn mower?

We recommend this riding lawn mower for people who have small gardens or areas of land that are an acre or less in length. They're also a great option for people who have a tight budget - and just want to cut grass and nothing else. 

Lawn tractors

Lawn tractors

(Image credit: Home Depot)

When people think of riding lawn mowers, this is the type of riding lawn mower they have in mind. This is the next class of riding lawn mower above the entry level models. The cutting blade is located in the middle of the machine, which gives it a wider cut. The typical cutting deck ranges between 38-52 inches. 

Unlike rear-driven riding lawn mowers, lawn tractors have enough power to use a limited range of accessories, such as a grass collection box or tow for a collection of garden tools. But these loads shouldn’t be too heavy - as the name suggests, these tractors are more focused on maintaining your lawn. 

Most lawn tractors come with a pedal operated transmission that gives you good control over the machine. They also have low level creature comforts like a cup holder. The lawn tractor is best for lawns that are between one and four acres in length.

Advantages of lawn tractors

Lawn tractors have many advantages over rear-driven riding lawn mowers. They have a wider cutting range, a more powerful engine and offer a wider range of accessories. This means they cut the grass faster and give you a greater range of versatility. 

They are a good compromise if you're seeking a faster lawn mower, without wanting to increase storage space by a large degree.

Disadvantages of lawn tractors 

When compared to rear-driven riding lawn mowers, these are a little harder to control due to the placement of the engine and blades. The engine is placed towards the front of the machine, which makes it hard for you to see over when steering. 

As the cutting deck is placed in the middle of the machine, the machine has trouble cutting under objects like benches, unlike rear-driven riding lawn mowers. Lawn tractors are also a little bigger and require more storage space. 

When compared to the garden tractor, they are less powerful and offer a lot less versatility. 

Should you buy a lawn tractor? 

A lawn tractor is best for people with a large amount of land to maintain, but is mostly going to use a ride-on lawn mower to maintain their lawn and trim grass. Lawn tractors are a good compromise between the power and speed of a garden tractor and the price and size of a rear-driven riding lawn mower. 

Garden tractor

Garden tractor

(Image credit: Cub Cadet)

Garden tractors are the elite class of ride-on lawn mowers and are built for heavy duty garden care. These tractors are the most powerful, offer the widest cutting range that can extend up to 72 inches, and the widest range of accessories. 

These machines are designed to handle much rougher terrain compared to the other types of ride-on lawn mowers, and come with specially designed transmission for hilly, rocky ground, plus wider tires with deeper treads. 

Advantages of garden tractors

These are the best kind of ride-on lawn mowers. They offer the greatest versatility, speed and cutting width. They also have an extremely durable, strong build. 

Garden tractors can use heavy duty accessories like tillers, cultivators, plow blades and even snowblowers. These machines are built to do a lot more than just maintain your lawn. Many models come with optional features, such as the ability to run a generator off their engine, making them invaluable tools on large areas of land. 

Disadvantages of garden tractors

The biggest disadvantage is the cost. Garden tractors are very expensive - almost prohibitively expensive when compared to the other types of riding lawn mowers. 

They are also the biggest lawn-mower type and require a lot of storage room. The large engine on a garden tractor also means that there is less visibility when driving. 

Should you buy a garden tractor?

This riding lawn mower is the best for people who own over five acres of ground that they have to maintain and care for. It's a great tool that will help in all aspects of landscaping, due to the large amount of tasks it can handle. We only recommend these machines for people who need professional level gardening. 

Zero-turn riding lawn mowers

Zero-turn riding lawn mowers

(Image credit: Home Depot)

Zero-turn riding lawn mowers are designed to turn on a 180 degree angle, meaning you have to make less passes. These machines are all about cutting at speed, and so they are the fastest ride-on lawn mowers available. 

These machines are steered using two levers instead of a steering wheel. One controls speed, the other causes the machine to turn on the spot. This can be difficult to learn, but once it's mastered, these lawn mowers over the greatest maneuverability and control. This greater control allows zero-turn riding lawn mowers to trim grass right up to the edges of the border and weaving around shrubs and bushes. They are often less versatile than garden tractors, and are only used for cutting grass. 

Advantages of zero-turn riding lawn mowers

Zero-turn rider lawn mowers are great for tight turns, and for gardens where there are a lot of obstacles to steer around. 

Zero turn lawn mowers are speedy machines that can turn on the spot. This saves you time and having wide circles of uncut grass when you turn. 

Disadvantages of zero turn riding lawn mowers 

Zero turn riding lawn mowers aren't very good on slopes or hilly terrain because the casters on the side of the machine dig into the ground. This limits their use to flat gardens only. 

Although they offer great maximum speeds, you often find yourself going as slow as other kinds of riding lawn mowers to achieve an even cut lawn. They are also one of the more expensive types of lawn mowers. 

Should you buy a zero turn riding lawn mower?

A zero turn riding lawn mower is best for people who have flat gardens, who want to cut their gardens at speed, and have a lot of obstacles to steer around.