The Best Self-Propelled Lawn Mowers in 2023 for Making Your Yard Work Easier
These lawn mowers drive themselves, taking the load off you in the process.
By Roy Berendsohn Published: Mar 21, 2023
One of the perks of the warm-weather season is getting to spend time outside. If you own your own home and have a yard, it’s very likely that in order to enjoy your outdoor space, you need to mow the lawn. The larger the yard, the more work it will be to maintain. If you have a lot of grass to cut, you’d be wise to consider a self-propelled lawn mower especially now that there are a ton of sales just in time for Memorial Day.
The primary difference between a standard push mower and a self-propelled mower is that the former moves when you push it, and the latter essentially moves itself with only your guidance. Once the engine is running, all you have to do is squeeze a handle or push a lever and the mower will start moving forward with you as you walk.
Turning the mower around is your job, but once you have your heading, just keep the drive handle squeezed and escort the mower down the path, no pushing necessary.
Self-propelled law mowers take power off the engine and route it via a belt to a pulley on the transmission and axle. When you move the drive control lever on the mower handle, you tension the belt, causing the pulley to turn, and this drives the transmission, moving the mower forward.
Move the drive control lever back and the tension is released, the pulley stops turning, and the mower stops moving forward. The belt-driven transmission is a time-tested design to power the mower and take the load off you in the process.
What to Consider
A mower is like many consumer products in that the more features a manufacturer adds, the more expensive it becomes. But a longer or more eye-catching list of features isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes less is more. Here are the most important to keep in mind.
Front-wheel drive mowers tend to be less expensive than rear-wheel drive units. They can be easier to turn because you don’t have to disengage the drive wheels to do so. Simply push down on the handlebar to raise the front wheels off the ground. However, their traction isn’t as strong on hills or when the bag is full, as there isn’t as much weight over the drive wheels.
Rear-wheel drive mowers do cost more and aren’t as easy to turn, as you do need to disengage the drive—but this isn’t too much of a hassle. Rear-wheel drive mowers shine on hills and inclines, and when the grass bag is full. In either scenario, weight is shifted rearward and over the drive wheels, which enables superior traction, thus making the self-propel more effective.
An engine as small as 125 cc can power a mower, but most are somewhere in the 140 cc to 190 cc range. A large engine helps when powering through tall, lush grass or in extreme conditions, such as with a side discharge chute in place and mowing tall weeds in a border area. Also, the extra torque provided by a larger engine can improve bagging when the going gets tough (tall, leaf-covered grass in the fall). But if you mow sensibly and pay attention to deck height—and especially if you don’t let your lawn get out of control—an engine between 140 and 160 cc has more than enough power to get the job done.
A mower can have all four wheels the same diameter (7 to 8 inches), or it may have rear wheels that range from 9.5 inches to 12 inches in diameter. Larger rear wheels help the mower roll more easily over bumpy ground.
With some mowers you can start the engine with the twist of a key or the press of a button. It’s a great option, but a luxury. Keep the mower engine tuned and use fresh fuel with stabilizer added to it, and you’ll never have trouble starting.
Any number of mechanisms can control a mower’s ground speed—a squeeze handle, a drive bar that you press forward, even a dial. There’s no single right answer here. Look at the design and think about how you like to work. For example, if more than one person will be using the mower (and not all of them are right-handed), a drive control like that on a Toro Personal Pace mower might be the answer. Just push down on the bar to make it go faster. Let up on the bar to slow down.
A mower that can bag, mulch, and side discharge is known as a three-function mower, the most versatile kind. Two-function mowers bag and mulch or mulch and side discharge.
Mowers will typically have one, two, or four levers to control the deck height. Single-lever adjustment is the easiest to use, but it requires more linkage, which adds weight and complexity. If, for some reason, you find yourself varying deck height frequently, it’s a good option. Otherwise, two or four levers work just fine.
Only Honda makes a gas-engine mower with a high-impact plastic deck (there are battery mowers that have plastic decks). Otherwise, mowers generally have a steel deck, and a few manufacturers—Toro, for one—offer a corrosion-resistant aluminum deck. An aluminum deck won’t rot the way a steel deck will, but you still need to keep it clean.
This is a hose fitting mounted on top of the mower’s deck. When you’re done mowing, hook up a hose and run the mower to power wash the underside of the deck. We’ve had mixed results with these, but they’re better than just letting a mass of dried grass clippings accumulate.
expensive mowers come with a more durable bag with more dust-blocking capability. If you bag a lot, especially leaves or other lawn debris in the fall, then you need a mower with a higher quality dust-blocking bag. Having said that, if you rarely bag, the standard one that comes with a mower will last you the life of the mower.
Also called wide-area mowers, machines in this subgroup help homeowners better reconcile their need for more power and speed with the fact that they may not have enough storage for a tractor or zero-turn mower. A typical residential walk mower has a single-blade deck that cuts a swath from 20 to 22 inches wide. Wide-cut mowers (built for homeowner use) have either a single blade or, more typically, a pair of blades, cutting from 26 to 30 inches with each pass. Some of these are rated for light commercial use and have larger decks, in the 32-inch range, and engines that start at 223 cc and go up to about 337 cc.
Wide-cut mowers typically employ gear or hydrostatic drive transmissions, and they have top speeds of about 4 to 6 miles per hour. At their fastest, they move so quickly you have to trot to keep up with them. Needless to say, they’re overkill for small yards; only opt for one of these if you’ve got a significant plot of land that you need to keep tidy, but not one so large that you’d be better off going with a full-on riding mower.
How We Tested and Selected
We compiled this list based on Popular Mechanics mower testing and our knowledge of the lawn mower market at large. For our testing, we put mowers through the paces using our standard Popular Mechanics methodology: We cut turf grasses such as fescues and blue grass and rougher non-turf grasses like Timothy, clover, orchard grass, and wild oats, all in both normal and shin-deep heights. We mow uphill, downhill, and across the faces of hills. The maximum slope we cut is about 30 degrees.
That may not sound like much, but it’s about all you can do to stand on it, let alone push a mower up it or across it. We mow damp and wet grass to test general cutting performance and whether clippings accumulate on the tires. And we cut dry and dusty surfaces to see how well the bag filters under less-than-optimal conditions.
Honda HRN 216VKA
Honda mowers enjoy a sterling reputation. Having tested their walk and self-propelled mowers for the last 30 years, we feel confident that Honda’s entry level mower is a great choice for homeowners looking for power and durability. The HRN features a GCV 170 gas engine that’s built to withstand long hours of operation.
If you do your own maintenance (and most owners who buy this class of product do), you’ll appreciate the easily accessible spark plug and the fuel shutoff valve that enables better winter storage. Close the fuel shutoff and run the mower until it sputters to a halt. This will clear the carburetor of any gasoline, which will prevent the ethanol in it from disintegrating and causing running issues later on. Open the shutoff valve in the spring, add some fresh gasoline, and the mower should start easily.
All this maintenance stuff is great, but we can also tell you that our past test findings on other Hondas prove that their cut quality is outstanding for cleanliness. Sharp blades deliver a velvet-like finish. And their bagging ability is also quite good, in the same league with other well-bagging mowers from Toro.
In all, if you take mowing seriously, you should enjoy this Honda. If you have a little wiggle room in your budget, consider the Honda HRX, which features a mower powerful engine and a composite deck that won’t rust and is renowned for its durability.
One note is that Honda has announced that it will cease selling lawn mowers in the United States after this year—so if you’re considering buying one, best do it sooner rather than later.
Toro Recycler 60-Volt Max Lithium-Ion
Toro mowers have garnered more recommendations from us than any other brand for two reasons: build quality and cut quality. These were amply demonstrated in our testing as the Recycler turned in the best ratio of cut area per amp-hour of battery in the self-propelled category, while at the same time not skimping on cutting, mulching, or bagging quality.
We attribute this outstanding mower performance to three features, all upgrades to the previous version of this machine. First, the air vent at the front of the mower deck seems to improve mulching and bagging performance. Toro calls it Vortex technology, a design that increases air flow under the deck. This helps to stand the grass for a cleaner cut, which improves mulching performance, and also allows better airflow into the bag when collecting the clippings.
Next, the company’s redesigned “Atomic” blade configuration appears to assist the air flow and clipping movement. Finally, the three-phase, 60-volt motor is exceptionally efficient, resulting in a large cut area for a single battery.
Toro has maintained features that make this mower work: rear wheel drive, a one-piece deck that’s all steel (no plastic nose), 11-inch wheels to help it roll over roots and crevices, and the same fold-forward handle that was an industry breakthrough when it was introduced some years ago.
Ryobi 40-Volt Brushless Self-Propelled Mower
This is one of Ryobi’s top-of-the-line mowers, and it’s American-made construction is something we wish we saw more of. It delivers a tremendous cut area with its two 6-Ah batteries providing a total of 12-Ah of capacity, and its X-shaped blade leaves a pristine surface in its wake.
Ryobi estimates the design should provide 70 minutes of run time; we didn’t time our cut, but it strikes as plausible. Its rear-wheel drive and reasonably aggressive tire tread pattern provide good hill climbing and sidehill cutting performance, and its bagging on all surfaces (level, sidehill, and uphill) is also commendable.
Other ease-of-use features include an easily installed or removed bag that mounts and dismounts straight up and down through the handle; deck adjustment is quick and easy thanks to a single-level deck height adjustment. The straight edge deck is polypropylene; it will never rust and needs very little care other than basic cleaning.
Toro TimeMaster 30 in. Briggs Stratton Personal Pace
The Toro Timemaster 30-in. mower has been around for several years and has earned a reputation as a sturdy workhorse for homeowners who want to cut down on their mowing time. It’s also used by some professionals as well. A few years ago the Timemaster got a slightly more powerful Briggs and Stratton gas engine, so it should have no issues powering through most demanding mowing jobs.
The Timemaster is rear-wheel drive and features Toro’s Personal Pace drive system that’s used on many of its self-propelled mowers. This allows the mower to move at your speed by simply pushing down or releasing the handle, which is spring-tensioned.
With a 30-in. deck, Toro claims the Timemaster will help you reduce your mowing time by about 40% compared to using a standard-sized mower. You can mulch, back, or side discharge with the Timemaster, and the handlebar can be locked in a fully vertical position to reduce space consumption in storage.
If you have half an acre to a full acre of lawn to mow and prefer the experience of a walk-behind mower versus a tractor or zero-turn, the Timemaster is worth a look.
Craftsman mowers have been doing very well in our tests, so we can recommend this one because it’s so much like the many other of the brand’s models that we’ve tested. If you’re looking for a good blend of maneuverability and power, you’ll get it with this mower. Its front drive helps move it along and makes it easy to turn.
It’s important to note that front-drive mowers do lose some traction when running uphill, particularly with a full grass bag. But if your slope is less than 20 degrees, and you’re not bagging uphill, you’ll be fine. The side discharge will also help you handle tall grass. Adjust the two deck levers to bring the mower up to full height and have at the rough stuff.
The fact that this mower bags, mulches, and side discharges is a plus, enabling you to handle a wide range of mowing conditions, from early spring and late into the fall. Three-function mowers like this are our preference for that versatility.
Toro Super Recycler Self-Propelled Lawn Mower
This is a beauty of a mower, with a cast-aluminum deck and a smooth-running Briggs Stratton 163-cc engine. We tested the Honda engine-equipped version, and it was effective at both bagging and mulching, even in moist grass.
Equipped with rear-wheel drive and the Personal Pace system (the farther you push the drive bar, the faster the mower goes), it’s an effective hill climber and moderately effective on sidehill cutting. It has relatively small 7.5-inch tires on all four corners, which causes this Toro to bump up and down a bit on washboard surfaces. But the good news is that it’s equipped with a far higher quality tire than we’re used to seeing these days. We didn’t notice them pick up any grass on moist surfaces.
Other features we like include its forward-fold handle that has a built-in shock absorber that Toro calls a Flex Handle Suspension, and a high-quality grass bag that loads through the handle, from the top.
Are there special maintenance considerations with self-propelled mowers?
Yes. Both front- and rear-wheel drive mowers typically feature a drive belt, which can crack or wear out over time. Fortunately these belts are not difficult or particularly expensive to replace.
Secondly, you may have to replace the drive wheels occasionally. These wheels are driven with gears. there are typically teeth on the inside diameter of the drive wheel that line up with a gear on the axle. These teeth can wear out, especially if they are made of plastic. Higher-end mowers may feature drive wheels with a metal gear that meets the metal axle gear, which improves longevity of these components.
My lawnmower says I don’t ever have to change the oil, but just add oil when needed. Is this OK?
It’s not a good idea to never change the oil in your lawn mower. In a lawn mower, same as a car, oil degrades over time and is less effective at reducing heat and friction in metal components. Changing the oil in your lawn mower is easy to do and will significantly increase its service life. For most homeowners, changing the oil at the beginning or end of each mowing season should be sufficient, though there is certainly no harm in doing it more often.
Roy Berendsohn has worked for more than 25 years at Popular Mechanics, where he has written on carpentry, masonry, painting, plumbing, electrical, woodworking, blacksmithing, welding, lawn care, chainsaw use, and outdoor power equipment. When he’s not working on his own house, he volunteers with Sovereign Grace Church doing home repair for families in rural, suburban and urban locations throughout central and southern New Jersey.
Walk Behind Mower Transmission Problems and Their Fixes
Cub Cadet is a well-known manufacturer of high-quality walk-behind mowers. While these mowers are dependable and efficient, they can occasionally develop problems that require troubleshooting.
Some of the most common Walk Behind Mower Transmission Problems are:
After reading the article, Cub Cadet walk-behind mower owners can quickly diagnose and fix their transmission problems.
Walk Behind Mower Transmission Problems and Solutions
In this section, the discussion on common problems related to walk behind mower transmission issues will follow:
After running the mower for 6-8 hours, the transmission, or more specifically, the rod that changes the gears on the transmission, usually won’t go beyond first or second gear.
Fixing The Self Propel On A Lawn Boy Mower
Once in gear, it is usually very “sticky”. Meaning it takes a lot of effort to shift back from first into neutral or reverse. And it simply will not go into a higher gear at the end of the day.
This may be accompanied by grinding or whining noises when shifting gears
The reasons for transmission shifting issues includes:
- Low transmission fluid level
- Dirty or worn transmission gears or components
- Malfunctioning or damaged transmission belt
- Loose or damaged drive cable
- Worn or damaged drive wheels or tires
- Bent or damaged transmission input shaft
- Misaligned drive pulleys
- Damaged shift linkage or cable
To fix this, first refill or replace transmission fluid. Ensure it is properly lubricated (a tube of bentonite grease would do!).
Clean or replace worn transmission components, e.g: a damaged transmission belt. Tighten or replace loose or damaged drive cable, shift linkage or cable drive wheels or tires and transmission input shaft.
Also realign the drive pulleys.
List of walk-behind mowers that have this specific problem:
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Loss of Drive
The mower loses power or drive, and the wheels stop turning. It may move sluggishly or unevenly with unusual noises.
A worn drive belt reduces the mower’s ability to transfer power from the engine to the transmission.
Broken or worn transmission components are also another reason. It should be repaired or fixed.
The transmission may lose power if it is low on fluid, or if the fluid is contaminated or degraded. Refill or replace the transmission fluid.
Walk behind mowers with this specific problem the most are:
The mowers move slower than usual or do not move at all. They are especially sluggish when climbing hills or uneven terrain.
The walk-behind mower transmissions make unusual noises while in operation when slipping. Such as grinding or whining sounds. The mower’s drive belt may appear loose or worn
This problem is also attributed to worn-out transmission components and low fluid. Troubleshooting these components might relieve the issue.
Some brands that have been reported to have these slipping transmission problems include Murray, Craftsman, Troy-Bilt, etc.
Sudden Stops or Lurching
Sudden stops or lurching of the walk-behind mower usually accompanies shifting issues and noises
Low transmission fluid levels or contaminated/dirty fluid, worn or damaged drive belt, faulty drive cable or linkage, malfunctioning transmission gears or bearings, misaligned or worn pulleys, and worn drive wheels or tires are the cause.
Check for wear or damage and replace those worn transmission components. Also, ensure that the fluid is level.
Fluid leaks under the mower are the most common things in those walk-behind mower transmissions. Difficulty shifting gears or uneven shifting, grinding, or whining noise during operation, loss of power or reduced speed and increased fuel consumption is common.
Worn-out seals or gaskets are the most common reason behind these leaks. Damage to the transmission housing and a cracked or damaged transmission shaft also contributes to this.
Additionally, you must avoid overfilled transmission fluid, clogged transmission filters and loose transmission lines.
Some of the walk-behind mowers that are highly prone to this problem are:
- Honda HRR and HRX Series
- Toro Recycler Series
- Craftsman M105 and M110 Series
- Poulan Pro PR500N21SH and PR450N20S
- Husqvarna LC221FHE and LC221RH
Any walk-behind mower may become overheated and behave sluggishly or have reduced power. Due to overheating, the mower may emit an unusual odor, such as a burning smell.
Overworking the mower by mowing excessively long or thick grass and a lack of maintenance causes overheating. You must change the transmission fluid and clean the transmission cooling fins regularly.
Make sure that the cooling system is working properly and not clogged or obstructed by anything.
If the mower emits a burning odor or unusual sounds, immediately stop using it and inspect the transmission for any signs of damage or wear.
Some of the walk-behind mowers with transmission overheating issues are:
Common Manufacturer Recalls for the Walk Behind Mower Transmissions
When reliable brands of walk-behind mowers make recalls due to their faulty transmissions, that’s something nobody forgets easily. Here are some of those incidents:
- Briggs Stratton recalled approximately 18,000 Craftsman-branded walk-behind mowers in 2014. It was due to a risk of injury from broken blades and a transmission problem. Apparently, the issue could cause the mower to continue moving even after the operator releases the control bar.
- Around 7,100 Husqvarna and Poulan Pro walk-behind mowers were recalled in 2018. This was because of the same issue as B S.
- Toro recalled approximately 7,000 Toro and Exmark walk-behind mowers in 2020 due to a potential transmission problem that could cause the drive belt to fail, resulting in a loss of control.
- John Deere recalled approximately 3,700 ZTrak Mowers in 2018 due to a potential transmission failure that could cause unexpected movement.
- Toro recalled approximately 6,700 of its TimeCutter and TITAN zero-turn radius riding mowers in 2019. It could cause a potential fire hazard.
- MTD Products recalled over 5,000 walk-behind mowers in 2016 due to a transmission problem.
It is important to regularly check for any safety recalls issued by the manufacturer and follow their instructions to address any potential issues.
Cost of Walk-Behind Mower Transmission Replacement
The cost of replacing a walk-behind mower transmission varies depending on the brand, model of the mower, the type of transmission, and the labor cost in your area.
A replacement transmission for a walk-behind mower can range from 100 to 500, depending on the model and brand.
Labor costs depend on the model and the labor cost in your area. For example, a D140 repair can cost about 700 for labor.
Maintaining a beautiful lawn can be a daunting task, especially if you lack the appropriate know-how and tools to handle the challenges that may crop up. Fortunately, LawnAsk is here to offer you an all-encompassing resource that covers everything you need to know about lawn care.