If you're mechanically inclined, grew up on a farm or work on your own car, you'll have a distinct advantage while shopping for lawn and garden tractors. You'll be able to pick up the jargon quickly, so phrases such as "fluid drive" or "cast-iron block" will actually make sense.
On the other hand, no particular expertise is required to use, or benefit from, these machines. Convenience and ease of use are major goals of lawn tractor designers. Several models even offer amenities such as cruise control, cup holders and ergonomically designed seats. These luxuries aside, the most important reason to buy a lawn or garden tractor, of course, is to help you care for your lawn, your garden or both. How do you know if you need one? Most people who buy any type of lawn tractor have a half-acre or more of lawn to mow. But some people have less lawn and more garden. The trick is to find the machine that meets your specific needs, at a cost within your budget.
There is a wide range in price and configuration. Prices begin at $1,000 and go as high as $10,000. While the majority of lower-priced tractors are limited to cutting grass, more expensive tractors are able to do much more, last longer and have a greater resale value.
When we put the question of choice to various experts, we were told: "Don't buy more than you need, and buy quality. Don't fall for the sucker's trap of buying more horsepower or a wider mowing deck."
Based on our experience, if you pay more, you get more. And research shows that lawn tractors are long-term investments, so it makes sense to choose wisely.
Whatever the size or power of the tractor you're looking for, and regardless of your budget, you'll need to get some basic terminology under your belt before you buy.
Lawn Tractors are the most lightweight and least expensive of the lineup, kind of like a Chevy S10 compared with a full-sized pickup truck. Engine power varies between 12 and 18 horsepower, and cost ranges between $2,000 and $6,000. Expect to pay at least $3,000. These tractors are designed primarily for mowing lawns, though some include a front blade or even a snowthrower.
Yard Tractors fall between lawn tractors and garden tractors. Think of them as a Dodge Dakota--a midsized pickup truck. Yard tractors have larger, more heavy-duty transmissions and usually have more gear choices. They are primarily used as lawn mowers, but front blades, snowthrowers and sometimes towing carts are available. Engine power ranges between 14 and 20 horsepower, and they typically cost about $3,500.
Garden tractors are like full-sized pickup trucks. The wheels and tires are larger, the ground clearance is greater and the frame and front axle are heavier. Unlike the two smaller types of tractors, garden tractors are designed to accommodate "ground engaging" attachments, such as rototillers. Typically, these attachments are powered by the tractor engine and connect at the "PTO," or power take-off.
Some garden tractors can accommodate more than one attachment; one in the front and one in the rear, for instance. While garden tractors cut grass as well as lawn or yard tractors, a mower deck is usually not included as standard equipment and will cost you about $600 to $1,000. Engine power is 14 to 22 horsepower, and they typically cost about $4,500.
Keep in mind that these categories are not clear-cut. For example, several manufacturers offer mid-range tractors that are the size of a lawn tractor but have garden tractor engines that can handle ground-engaging tools.
Note--A word about pricing. When we asked for prices, a few manufacturers were reticent. The bottom line: Expect prices to vary widely. Look for special promotions offered by regional distributors or individual dealers, and shop around. Once you settle on a brand or model, call all the dealers in your area. Talk to the independent dealers as well as mass marketers. mindful of price, of course, but also factor in service availability. An independent dealer is more likely to offer free setup and delivery and quick and dependable service.
To the average gardener checking out a tractor, the siren song is horsepower -- the more the better. Discount manufacturers are likely to put a high-horsepower engine into a so-so tractor body just so you'll be properly seduced. Don't fall for it. For one thing, an S10 pickup with a V-8 engine is still an S10. The engine is only a part of the package.
Ask your dealer about "transfer of power efficiency." Some tractors need several horsepower just to move forward. The most efficient tractors need only about one-quarter horsepower. All else being equal, this means an efficient 14-hp tractor will have the same usable horsepower as an inefficient one with a 16-hp engine.
Efficient use of power also figures into each task you ask of your tractor. Some require more power to cut grass simply because the mowing decks are not as well designed.
How much horsepower do you need? There is no specific answer. Generally, tractors with less power can do most of the jobs a higher-powered tractor can, only more slowly. For instance, a tractor with 10 horsepower can climb as steep a grade as a tractor with 20 horsepower but not as quickly; or a 12-hp tractor might drive the same 36-inch mowing deck as a 16-hp tractor, but more slowly.
Engines with overhead valves are quieter, less polluting and more powerful. Liquid-cooled engines last two to three times longer than engines that rely on air cooling. But they cost a lot more, and it might cost less to rebuild a rundown air-cooled engine than pay for the liquid-cooled engine. Another feature that improves engine life is an oil pump. Again, weigh the additional cost against the increased longevity.
In addition to engine horsepower, the other great siren song of lawn and garden tractor salespeople is the width ofthe mowing deck. Again, don't fall for the big numbers.
Actual mowing speed is a function of the tractor's forward speed, the rate of cutting blade rotation and the width of the deck (not to mention the height of your grass).
All things being equal, a tractor with a 60-inch deck mowing at four miles per hour will finish your lawn in half the time as a 30-inch deck mowing at four miles per hour. But all things aren't equal. If the tractor with the larger deck has slower blade rotation than the smaller one, the advantage disappears.
Larger decks save time if you've got a lot of lawn to mow. If you're mowing a half-acre, another 10 inches of deck width might save about 15 minutes. But if you maintain five acres of lawn, that same 10 inches could save hours.
Decks differ in where they discharge clippings: side, rear or as mulch. Side-discharge tractors are most common. These are fine for many situations, but they can throw rocks like bullets. Rear-discharge decks are intended for use with baggers.
We think mulching decks are most practical. They chop and return grass clippings to your lawn, so you don't have to spend time bagging and disposing of the clippings. Mulching decks (or a good compost pile) are essential in communities where it is illegal to send lawn clippings to the dump.
Some manufacturers offer mulching decks as standard equipment, and others offer these decks as an additional attachment. Be careful because some so-called mulching decks are simply standard decks with the exit port blocked. This can result in poor cutting or unattractive furrows of clippings on your finished lawn. Ask the dealer about the mulching deck you're considering, then compare it with other models.
The most popular transmission is the hydrostatic or "full hydro." These transmissions are generally the strongest, but they're also the most expensive.
Hydrostatic transmissions have two gear positions, foward and reverse, and the more you press on the accelerator, the faster you'll go. You pay for this convenience in power: the transmission itself consumes one to two horsepower.
Other types of transmissions require shifting. One popular type of tractor transmission is called "variable speed." This transmission features several forward gears and one reverse gear. Like the automatic transmission in cars, lower forward gears are used for climbing and higher gears for cruising. Variable-speed transmissions are not as strong as either hydrostatic or standard gear transmissions.
Another type of transmission, known as "straight line" or "standard gear," is like a stick-shift car. These are simple and strong, but gear ratios are limited.
All transmission types have advantages and disadvantages. Be sure to explain to your dealer how you'll be using the tractor and ask for advice.
Power is transferred from the engine to the wheels and attachments by an automotive-like drive shaft, gears, chains or belts. "Self-aligning" belts are considered to be the most efficient. The drive shaft is the strongest, but it consumes the most engine power and is the costliest to repair.
These are the foundations upon which all else is built. One-piece frames, whether of stamped steel or cast iron, have many times the longevity of a frame assembled with bolts, screws or rivets. When the latter come loose or shift, all kinds of things work their way out of alignment.
One manufacturer, Steiner, produces a tractor with a fully "articulated" frame, which means it bends in the middle. It's complex to make such a frame and to make it strong, but it improves maneuverability.
Most tractors are covered by polycarbonate-plastic bodies, which never dent or rust. In some cases, they are heavy and strong, but not always. Ask your dealer if the body is guaranteed.
Generally, look for the smallest turning radius. A small radius indicates the tractor is more maneuverable, so it's easier to navigate around shrubs, sprinklers, trees and other obstructions. Trouble is, the tractor industry has yet to agree upon one method to measure the turning radius, so some manufacturers exploit it while others ignore it.
Attachments are important if you're shopping for a yard or garden tractor. There are a variety of attachments available, and you'll probably be using several. When shopping for attachments, make sure they are easy to change. The best ones take a matter of minutes without tools; the worst can take an hour and require a toolbox.
Some manufacturers offer rototiller attachments that come with their own engine, which means the tractor is only towing the rototiller. While this system works fine, these attachments cost much more than the nonpowered types and are much heavier, making the tractor more difficult to handle.
Attachments from some manufacturers, notably Toro, are fully interchangeable even with other models from different years. For instance, you could mount a 1975 rototiller onto a new 314-H tractor, and vice versa.
As with your used car, the initial quality and current condition of your tractor determine its resale value. A quality tractor from a national manufacturer is worth about half of its initial value after three or four years. By comparison, we estimate a low-cost tractor from a mass marketer would be worth about a tenth of its initial value.
All top-brand tractors now feature a seat shutoff switch, which instantly kills the engine if you leave the seat while the wheels or attachments are moving. Make sure the gasoline tank is separate from the engine and battery. Spilling a little gasoline is common, and it could ignite on a hot engine or from a battery spark.
On some tractors, the gearshift lever can be accidentally kicked into gear while the user is climbing off. Check out your body cl during test drives or in the showroom.
Before you shop for a lawn and garden tractor, do your homework. Call manufacturers and ask for information about their lawn and garden tractors. Then visit dealers and begin price and service comparisons. Take test drives and, finally, use and enjoy your new tractor.
Article published on June 23, 2008.