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Gas Lawn Mowers

Inexpensive reel and electric mowers have their advantages, but bigger, heavier gas mowers, with their powerful cutting mechanisms and drive systems, are preferred for larger and/or hilly yards. Most low-cost gas mowers now feature a 4-cycle engine that runs on straight 87-octane gas, which is a big advance over the old 2-cycle engines that require a gas-oil mixture.

Cheap gas mowers of the past were notorious for difficult pull-starts, but our top picks minimize the effort required: The Toro 20371 (starting at $299) and Craftsman 37041 (starting at $275) feature a quick-start technology that incorporates an automatic choke and eliminates the need to prime the engine.

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Some upscale models incorporate a key start for the ultimate in easy-on functionality.

Gas-powered mowers require more care and attention than reel and electric mowers. First, always use the gas and oil recommended by the manufacturer and turn the air filter side up when cleaning so the oil doesn't drain out. Cleaning off the built-up dirt and grass immediately after use is important; the Toro 20371 includes a convenient wash-out port, which lets you hook up a hose to the top of the deck for washing off and around the blades. Experts suggest draining the gas and follow the winterizing directions suggested by the manufacturer. And before the start of the next season, you'll need to change the oil and the spark plug, and clean or replace the air filter.

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Gas mowers come in two configurations: push mowers and self-propelled mowers. A push mower, such as the Husqvarna 38450, requires the operator to power it forward while the engine turns the blade. Push mowers are best suited to relatively flat yards that are smaller than half an acre. For yards with an incline or more square footage, a self-propelled mower, such as the Craftsman 37041 or the Toro 20371, may be preferred.

Self-Propelled Mowers.

This technology turns the wheels in addition to the blades, so you don't have to push hard; it kind of pulls you along. Consumers who have posted reviews at Home Depot marvel at how the self-propelled Toro 20371 powers up hills, and several mention that it cuts their lawns in a fraction of the time a previous mower took. The Toro 20371 also boasts 11-inch-high rear wheels designed for uneven terrain. On the Sears website, one customer writes that this machine even gets her 14-year-old son excited about mowing the lawn -- the mower practically does the work for him.

The speed is usually controlled by a handle lever or push bar, so you can make sure the mower doesn't outrun your walking pace. Some new self-propelled mowers, including the Toro 20371, have variable speed control that lets you set your own pace, be it a leisurely stroll or more of a workout. The speed on these models usually ranges between 0 and 5 mph. For ultimate speed control, you might want to look at the pricier Toro 20332 (starting at $349), which responds to your walking speed by speeding up or slowing down as you do.

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Cheap self-propelled mowers usually sport front-wheel drive. Pricier self-propelled mowers are rear-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive pulls the mower forward from the front, provides better traction on flat terrain, and easily makes 180-degree turns. On the other hand, bagging is harder with front-wheel drive because the weight of the bag in the back of the mower interferes with the traction on the front wheels. Rear-wheel drive works better on hilly ground and for negotiating around obstacles like trees and rocks. Each system has its partisans, and a lively discussion about the pros and cons has played out on a Garden Web forum.

Cutting Deck.

Your mowing efficiency is affected by your speed, of course, but also by the width of the cutting path and the height of the blades. While the cutting width on cheap reel mowers ranges from 12 inches to 20 inches and cheap electric mowers are usually 18 or 19 inches, cheap gas mowers range from 19 to 22 inches, with the larger cutting swath found on self-propelled mowers. Remember, the larger the blade, the more difficult the mower is to push, so it's no surprise that the models that cut the widest path are self-propelled gas mowers.

Because experts recommend that you cut no more than one-third of the lawn's height in a single mowing, you'll want a lawn mower with multiple height settings. According to All About Lawns, grass that's too short may not withstand drought or excessive heat, and grass that's too long can accumulate thatch that gets in the way of water and fertilizer. The Scotts 2000-20 reel mower features nine cutting heights ranging from one to three inches and the electric Black & Decker MM275 features six heights that max out at 3.5 inches. The Toro 20371 and Craftsman 37041 self-propelled mowers feature nine cutting positions (up to 4 inches on the Toro and Craftsman doesn't specify).

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