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Comparing Transmissions and Reliability

Riding Mower Transmissions and Speed.

You won't set any land-speed records with a riding lawn mower, but these practical machines do move along at a good clip. Among our top picks, the John Deere D105 and Craftsman LT2500 narrowly win the race with a maximum speed of 5.5 mph, followed by the Ariens 960460056 and Troy-Bilt Bronco at 5.2 mph.
The smaller Weed Eater One rear-engine riding mower pokes along at a maximum 3.8 mph. These top speeds are meant for transport, not for cutting, so you'll need to slow down to mow and edge.

Depending on the type of transmission in your cheap riding mower, you'll have more or less control over the speed. Riding mowers with manual transmissions, such as the Troy-Bilt TB30R, have pre-set speeds (six in this case) and require the user to manually change the speed. The Weed Eater One uses a friction drive transmission, similar to what you might find on a snow blower, with only three speeds. The lawn tractors we recommend have automatic or hydrostatic transmissions that don't require manual shifting and perform much like a car, enabling a continuum of speeds up to the maximum. In reviews of the John Deere D105 at Lowe's, some users say the pedal that controls the speed is a bit of a challenge to master, but others declare the automatic transmission remarkably easy to operate -- just put it into gear and mow. On the Sears website, several reviewers praise the hydrostatic transmission on the highly maneuverable Craftsman LT2500. That model, along with the Ariens 960460056 and the Weed Eater One, even offers cruise control for long, uninterrupted stretches of mowing. Note, however, that a hydrostatic lawn tractor transmission eats up more fuel and requires fastidious maintenance, although it does give you more control and makes turning easier.

All cheap riding mowers move in reverse and, for safety reasons, require more than the mere flick of a switch (e.g., a key to lock into a special setting) to do so. Among the models on our list, top reverse speeds vary from 1 mph (Weed Eater One) to 5.5 mph (Craftsman LT2500). If sections of your lawn are too narrow for turning around but wider than the cutting deck, you'll probably want a riding mower that not only moves but also mows in reverse. Among the models we researched, the Ariens 960460056, Troy-Bilt TB30R, and Weed Eater One satisfy this requirement.

Electric start is standard on these riding mowers. Even the cheap Weed Eater One features electric start but also includes a pull-start as insurance in case the battery isn't sufficiently charged.

Riding Mower Maintenance.

All riding lawn mowers need maintenance, be it replacing worn-out belts, sharpening blades, or cleaning the deck after each use. It's important to service the unit regularly (according to the owner's manual) to help it last longer. Wash-out ports on the John Deere D105, Craftsman LT2500, and Ariens 960460056 make it easy to clean grass clippings out of the deck -- just attach a hose and spray -- and garner cheers from users. Before you buy, make sure replacement parts are readily available, either online or at a nearby retailer. In reviews on the Walmart website, several Weed Eater One owners gripe about the need to buy parts and obtain service from a warranty repair center or authorized dealer, only to discover that the providers don't handle this particular model. By contrast, owners of the John Deere D105 comment on the Home Depot website that there are plenty of John Deere dealerships that can service their machines.

Durability and Warranty.

Cheap riding lawn mowers usually come with a limited two-year warranty. Ariens also offers buyers one set of blades a year at no cost for the life of the lawn tractor, a bonus that appeals to many consumer reviewers. These warranties may come in handy, as most of the models we researched were panned in at least some reviews for a range of minor, and some major, problems. The Weed Eater One, in particular, takes some hits from users who gripe about broken starters, failing batteries, tires that must be inflated before each outing, and plastic parts that crack.

Review continues below

Although it's criticized more than others we researched, this cheap riding mower isn't alone in garnering negative press. A Home Depot customer who bought the John Deere D105 carps on the retailer's website about a plastic hood hinge that really needs to be protected by a steel front bumper available at an added cost. The one negative review of the Craftsman LT2500 on the Sears website so far notes a poorly designed gas tank and flimsy plastic parts but still gives the lawn tractor a three-star rating out of five. The Troy-Bilt Bronco garners complaints at Lowe's about rusted-out parts, stripped gears, and broken blades, but these are outweighed by the number of users who have been able to rely on the mower long-term. One Bronco owner who posted a review on the Lowe's website has been using the machine to mow a 3-acre lawn for eight years and counting. There are hardly any negative mentions of the Ariens 960460056 online. The handful of complaints on the Home Depot website concern machines that were non-functional out of the crate. Generally, for this crop of budget lawn tractors, the pros outnumber the cons.

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