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.
How to replace a Honda self propelled lawnmower drive Belt, in less than 30 minutes!
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.
When to Replace Lawn Mower Belt (Drive Deck Belts)
The lawnmower belt(s) is the main component that helps drive the power from the engine to drive the propeller which cuts the grass.
Over time, general wear and tear will occur and the belt(s) will eventually wear out and potentially break or not be able to cut your grass as efficiently.
But when is the best time to replace it? We will also review how long they last and ways to make the belt last longer whether it be on a push, self-propelled or riding lawn mower.
When to Replace Lawn Mower Belt?
There are two different types of belts; a drive and deck belt. The deck belt is the main belt which helps drive the propeller to cut the grass. The drive belt is what helps move the mower on its own (self propelled or riding mowers).
If you have a push lawnmower (electric or petrol) this will only have a deck belt. The belt should last the lifetime of a typical lawn mower (8-10 years, if used in ideal conditions and properly maintained). However if in the situation the deck belt needs to be replaced you will find out the propeller doesn’t run and not cut the grass where this is the most obvious symptom (other symptoms are explained later).
If you have a self-propelled or riding mower, you will find an additional belt which is the drive belt. As it states in the name, this helps drive the wheels of the mower to move and will help drive the other components for the deck belt. These belts last between 3-4 years (again depends on the amount of use of the lawnmower) and should be replaced within this time period, but of course if the mower is still running as it should, the replacement will be put off but there are various signs and symptoms to indicate if the belt should be replaced which is explained in the next section.
How to tell if a mower belt is too worn?
There are easy tell-tale signs which show a worn mower belt, but how do you tell the difference between a worn (still ok to use for a fair few sessions) or a very worn belt (will most likely break in the next one or two sessions).
The best way to check is to visually inspect the belt and the upcoming signs are of belts which need replacing.
One obvious sign is whether the belt is shiny and completely flat with little to no ridges or bumps (depending on belt design) on the surface which fits into the grooves of the pulley system. Then this is the obvious sign of a worn belt that needs replacing.
Other signs are cracks in the actual belt itself. If you bend the belt the other way from its natural position and it splits open then the belt has been cracked and it won’t be long until it snaps.
If you find the belt quite slack between each pulley, this is also a sign of old age or wear and tear. This will not efficiently run the mower and will be more prone to slipping when mower is on. Don’t get confused if you have a feature to un-tension the belt on the mower which is normal depending on the design of your mower.
If it is particularly difficult to access the belt or you want a quick way to notice the belt is too worn, keep particular attention to your next mowing session. Some signs may include:
- Mower stops/stutters at times (as it has lost traction to drive the wheels)
- Excessive vibration through the mower
When to replace self-propelled lawn mower belt
One key design of the self-propelled lawn mower is that it helps move the mower along which prevents you from having to push the mower, only requiring you to steer it in the direction of where you want to cut your grass. If you suddenly feel that you need to exert more force into pushing the mower or if the drive is slower than usual it is time to replace the drive belt. The last thing you want is the belt to snap as this can cause problems elsewhere if it gets caught or hits other components.
When to replace riding lawn mower belt
Similarly to a self-propelled lawn mower, you will need to replace the drive belt from time to time, you will find similar symptoms to the self propelled lawn mower where the mower may not drive very well, the belt may slip and mower may feel it is stuttering while driving.
Why does my lawn mower belt keep breaking?
If you have recently broken your mower belt or just replaced your mower belt and the belt has broken in no time, there are reasons why this has happened.
One common problem is excessive cut grass clippings on the deck. These clippings can get caught in between the pulleys which the belts are directly driving. This will cause unwanted additional tension to belts and may cause stretching to the belt which will loosen and then more grass clippings could get caught and would eventually snap the belt.
Another problem could be an oil leak within the engine, this will simply destroy the belt. If you have recently replaced a belt and it has broken with little use of the mower, you should check for oil leaks.
Broken or faulty pulleys can also cause broken belts. The pulley is meant to spin freely as the belt gets pulled around it. If the pulley is not spinning freely, uneven or excessive friction will occur on the belt and consequently wear it out quicker. If the pulley doesn’t look broken it is worth checking the bearings as these may be worn and may need replacing.
Quick fix for a loose drive belt. Sluggish or no drive power on Craftsman (YT4000) Lawn Tractors
If you have recently replaced your belts, it is important to tension the belt correctly according to your owner’s manual. If it has been over-tensioned, this will cause excessive strain on the belt when in use and will break quicker than usual. Misalignment of the belt to the sheave (groove(s) of the pulley) can also cause excessive wear, so make sure the belt grooves are aligned properly within the pulley, an easy way to check is if you spin one pulley the other pulley that the belt is wrapped around will move at the same time and frequency.
Checking the type of belt used in your mower is important especially if you are going away from what is stated in the owner’s manual. Factors such as the material, type of the belt and lengths are important and vital to ensure the belt lasts the intended lifetime they were made for. If you have purchased a belt that is not recommended within your owner manual but the design and lengths of the belt are correct the material is likely not to be the same as the original and most probably won’t be able to take the strain of the mower over its intended life.
It is worth noting some mowers only allow you to use the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) components, so no matter what belt you buy even if you match all the specifications of the OEM belt it may still not last as long as intended. However if in the case you can use other belts, use a belt which is made from Kevlar (often used in bulletproof vests), this is far more long lasting than the regular rubber reinforced with polyester cord belts. Although this is a more expensive option it might be worth using if it is particularly hard to change the belts depending on your mowers design.
How to keep lawn mower belt running for longer?
If you want to keep the replacement of the belts to a minimum these common procedures and guidance will keep the belt running for longer:
- Remove grass clippings at the end of every session (check the deck and in between the pulley belt)
- Use the mower for no longer than the recommended time, excessive heat will cause unnecessary wear the belt and weaken it over time
- Check the tension of the belt as often as possible and adjust where necessary as according to your manual
- Use the mower in the ideal conditions (dry and not completely over grown grass), if you are using it in conditions that are not ideal (wet and completely overgrown grass) it will wear the belt far quicker, if you do have very overgrown grass, trim it down first and complete the lawn in 2 sessions
The advice above is generic and covers all the mowers but of course refer to your owner’s manual and the recommendations of maintaining the mower as there may be extra/special features which may not be on regular mower that may need special attention which may affect the belts if not properly maintained.
Do you have to remove mower deck to replace belt?
This will depend on the type of mower you have. On a riding mower the belt should be accessible at the deck when it has been lowered to its lowest position or if you can lift the mower to access underneath the deck. However, if you have a self-propelled or push mower, this may be more difficult as this is often covered and protected by casing, so yes you may have to remove the deck to replace the belt. A drive belt is more difficult to replace and you are more likely to need to remove the mower deck on older models. Newer models may be designed so that the drive and deck belts are accessible once the cutting deck has been lowered into the lowest position. Again with any maintenance ,check your owner’s manual.
How many belts does a riding lawn mower have?
Some texts state that a riding lawn mower will have 2 belts (drive and deck belt) whereas some refer to 3 belts (Power Take-off Belt (PTO) or Power clutch belt, Arbor belt and Drive belt). The PTO and Arbor belt is often referred to as the ‘deck belt’ as these are found within the deck which help drives the cutting propellers. These are different belts which is found in the same area but differ in lengths and use in the actual lawn mower. It is important to check your owner’s manual to ensure you differentiate between the two otherwise the mower won’t run as it should.