Zero-Turn vs. Riding Lawn Mowers
What's the difference between traditional and zero-turn riding mowers? We break down the distinctions to help determine which option is best for you.
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In today’s market of big box stores and online shopping, there are more models of lawn mowers to choose from than ever before. This is great for consumers, but can also clutter the decision-making process. One such point of confusion is the difference between “riding” and “zero-turn” lawn mowers.
Consumer lawn mowers are generally classified by design (i.e. whether you ride it or push it) or by feature, like whether it’s powered by gas or a battery. Zero-turn radius (ZTR) is a distinctive feature that allows for precision cutting.
There are a limited number of zero-turn push mowers; zero-turn technology is much more common in riding lawn mowers. While not all riding mowers are zero-turn, most consumer zero-turn models are riding mowers. (If you’re curious about zero-turn push mowers, here’s one with a single swiveling front wheel and one with no wheels at all.)
To provide a good side-by-side comparison of a riding vs. a zero-turn lawn mower, we’ll refer to two models from John Deere: the traditional S100 and the zero-turn Z330M. Although the specs on mowers vary by manufacturer, these models serve as good stand-ins for our purposes.
What Are the Differences Between a Traditional Riding Mower and a Zero-Turn Riding Mower?
There are two main differences: turn radius and steering controls.
This is the defining characteristic of zero-turn mowers. A traditional riding mower turns the same way as a rear-wheel drive car. The rear wheels propel it forward while the front wheels control the direction it moves, resulting in a curved arc.
But a ZTR mower can rotate its drive wheels in opposite directions simultaneously. That gives it the ability to turn without moving forward.
Most zero-turn riding mowers feature lap bars rather than a steering wheel. Each bar controls a single rear tire. Push both bars forward and you’ll go forward. Pull them both back and you’ll go in reverse. Push one forward while pulling the other back, and you’ll rotate in place.
It’s worth noting not all zero-turn mowers use lap bars. Some zero-turn riding mowers come with a standard steering wheel but still offer pinpoint turning.
Traditional Riding Mower Advantages
Traditional riding mowers have two clear advantages over their zero-turn counterparts.
A traditional riding mower typically costs 30% to 50% less than a comparable zero-turn mower. In our examples, the John Deere S100 costs about 38% less than the Z330M, a savings of $1,500.
Easier to repair
Because they’ve been around for many years, it’s usually easier to obtain replacement parts for traditional riding mowers. If you’re a DIYer, chances are the steering and drivetrain of a traditional riding mower will be familiar enough to perform basic maintenance on your own.
Zero-Turn Riding Mower Advantages
Traditional riding mowers have an advantage in price and simplicity. Zero-turn mowers excel at saving you time.
It takes a great deal of maneuvering for a traditional riding mower to navigate standalone obstacles like bushes, trees and swing sets. A zero-turn riding mower can maneuver around these without the repeated backing up and redirecting of a traditional riding mower.
Precision controls reduce mowing time, but a zero-turn radius mower is faster than traditional mowers in pretty much every other category.
Zero-turn mowers tend to have wider cutting decks — typically 48- to 54-inches, compared to 42- to 46-inches with most traditional riding mowers — along with a faster operating speed. The maximum mowing speed for the Z330M is seven miles per hour, while the S100 tops out at 5.5 mph.
Zero Turn vs. Traditional Riding Mower Buying Considerations
If you’re deciding between a traditional or zero-turn riding mower, consider these key points.
If your budget is less than $3,000, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a zero-turn mower in your price range. A traditional riding mower can cost more than $3,000, but you’re likely to find a good fit between $1,200 and $2,800.
If you have a particularly large yard, the speed and deck size of a ZTR mower will make a huge difference in the time you spend mowing and refueling. The S100 is recommended for yards of about an acre, while the Z330M can handle three to four acres.
Yards with narrow pathways between obstructions often benefit from zero-turn mowers. But be sure to compare the width of the narrowest sections with the width of a mower’s cutting deck. The most agile mower in the world is useless if it’s too wide to fit through your gate.
The wider ZTR mower deck requires a fair amount of space in storage. A traditional riding mower is better in a tight garage, while a zero-turn mower needs a bigger outbuilding or small shed.