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The latest gasoline-powered mowers aim to make mowing easier. They also cut exhaust emissions by at least 32 percent compared with models sold five years ago, and allow you to mulch clippings--a crucial feature as more and more communities ban curbside disposal.
This year's mower section covers more than 60 self propelled and push mowers for lawns under half an acre or so. The report on self-propelled models begins below.
Looking for a lower-priced model for mowing a smaller lawn or trimming around a larger one? You'll find our push-mower report on page 34.
Mowers that power the wheels as well as the blade are one way to make grass cutting less onerous, especially if your lawn is hilly. Manufacturers are also introducing other labor-saving features, even on lower-priced machines.
Several mowers now offer push-button starting without the usual starter battery. A growing number of models have multiple drive speeds that allow you to crawl around garden borders, then speed back toward the shed when mowing is done. You'll also find more mowers that allow you to raise and lower the cutting height with one lever (see "Features That Help," below).
Nearly all models can mulch, bag, or side-discharge clippings--the three mowing modes. But some features that promise to trim your workload can actually add to it.
WHAT WE TESTED
This year's field of 40 self-propelled mowers includes many upscale brands like John Deere, Honda, Toro, and Snapper--the ones often sold at independent dealers. We also gathered models from Craftsman, MTD, and Murray--often found at large retailers--to see what you get in performance and convenience over a range of costs.
We tested these mowers in all three mowing modes. Most models are rear-baggers, which route clippings to a rear-mounted bag.We also rated four side-bagging mowers for this report.
WHICH MOW BEST
As the Ratings beginning on page 32 show, the best overall in this group come from John Deere and Honda, and begin at a heady $600. But four CR Best Buys, sold under MTD's Cub Cadet, White, and Yard-Man brands, did nearly as well for significantly less.
All of these mowers provided at least a reasonably even cut. Two--the top-rated John Deere JX75 and the Cub Cadet SC621--approached perfection. Which you choose depends in part on the type of mowing you do.
Mulching. The best mulchers force clippings below the lawn's surface. The rear-bagging Honda Harmony HRB215K3SXA and HRM215K3SDA, as well as the Toro Super Recycler 20487, left almost no visible clippings behind. At $600 to $700, though, they're a major investment.Nearly as good for about $400 to $500: the rear-bagging White LC210, Yard-Man 12A-979L401, and Cub Cadet SC621, along with the side-bagging Honda Harmony II HRS216SDA.
Bagging. This mode is best when you want the closest thing to a vacuumed carpet. It's also where the less expensive Cub Cadet, White, and Yard-Man beat pricier mowers.
Least impressive at this task were the side-bagging models. The best collected only about 15 pounds of clippings before their bags filled, compared with twice that amount for the best of the rear-baggers. We also found these mowers harder to maneuver through tight spots with their bags in place, and less impressive overall.
Side-discharging. This allows the mower to cut and discharge clippings onto the lawn--say, when grass is too tall to mulch or bag. It isn't pretty, but it gets the job done.
Most mowers left clumps thick enough to require raking. Notable exceptions were the rear-bagging Lawn-Boy GoldPro 10551, Poulan Pro PR6Y22CHA, and Husqvarna Crown Series 6522CH. All three dispersed clippings very evenly. But handling and other problems put them in the bottom half of the Ratings.
WHICH MOW EASIEST
One of the newest labor savers is the self-starting feature on MTD's Cub Cadet S621SS. Also sold on some White and Yard-Man mowers, the push-button device virtually eliminates having to pull a starter cord. Instead, starting power comes from a spring that rewinds itself as the engine shuts down. Except for starts in thick grass, where there wasn't enough spring tension, the device worked well. The catch: It makes this model about $80 more than the similar White LC210, which lacks this feature.
Roughly half of these mowers have at least three ground speeds, which adds versatility. The top-scoring John Deere JX75 provides five, while the Ariens LM21S and LM21SW are among those that allow you to vary speed infinitely between the fastest and slowest settings. A variation is the "Personal Pace" system on the Toro 20023 and 20025, and Lawn-Boy GoldPro 10551, which can vary speed depending on how hard you push down on the handlebar. But we found this feature imprecise and tricky to use.
A more serious problem concerns the high rear wheels on the lower-scoring Husqvarna and Poulan Pro models, among others. The 14-inch wheels on these machines are mounted relatively far behind the deck, making U-turns difficult. Worse, the front-drive design typical with …