Managing large lawns can feel impossible; between the sheer size and obstacles like trees or hills, it’s easy to struggle without the right equipment. Two of the most common mowers that can help gardeners and turf maintenance crews are the riding mower and the zero-turn mower. But which is better? With the help of STIGA expert Gary Whitney, we break down the riding vs zero-turn lawn mower debate into its essentials – differences, cut, hills, cost, and ease of use.
But what should customers consider as we cut to the facts behind these titans of mowing? Whitney suggests these tips: ‘What size lawn [you are cutting] and how tricky it is to cut as regards trees, borders, etc. The price that one wants to pay [for a mower]. Whether you want a battery-powered model which is kinder to the environment [over a gas-powered model].’
A riding lawn mower is exactly as it sounds. It has a plush seat and steering wheel and controls almost like a car to help you handle expansive lawns. Rather than having to struggle to push walk-behind mowers over hills and around obstacles, you can sit in comfort and have some fun while mowing.
A zero-turn mower, on the other hand, is a type of riding lawn mower rather than its own style. It has many similar features but is much more precise regarding manoeuvrability across the lawn.
Read on to discover our final verdict in the riding vs zero-turn mower showdown.
What’s the difference between a riding and a zero-turn lawn mower?
The main differences between the two mowers are steering and turn radius. A standard riding mower handles similarly to a car, with two front and two back wheels moving respectively to help you cut the lawn. The zero-turn mower instead can turn each of its wheels individually and go backwards using levers.
A zero-turn mower’s ability to control individual wheels allows for maximum precision and control, minimizing its turn radius to almost zero. This ability defines the zero-turn mower and brings ultimate precision while mowing around obstacles like trees or flowerbeds.
Is a zero-turn mower as good as a riding mower? Whitney says it is, using a STIGA model as an example: ‘Yes, in fact, the Gyro is powered by STIGA eMotion Technology, a unique electronic system developed to effortlessly govern direction, steering, and speed. The mower offers an extremely precise joystick, mounted on the armrest, which controls the vehicle, allowing it to turn on a sixpence…guaranteeing an enjoyable ride and taking lawn mowing to a new level.
The precision control and 360° turning radius facilitate mowing particularly close to the edges along bushes or lawns while simultaneously ensuring the best-possible visibility over the broader mowing area.’
When considering which of these two styles is best for your lawn, it is worth taking note of how many obstacles and edges you contend with as you mow. If you are mowing a lawn with plenty of trees and flowerbeds, a zero-turn mower may be best for you with its precise controls. If your lawn is simple, a standard riding mower may work best.
Riding vs zero-turn lawn mower: Which cuts better?
How well a mower controls means nothing if it cannot cut the grass well. You want to ensure a nice even cut and maybe even mow lawn stripes at the same time. Speed and precision are key factors in the quality of your cut.
When it comes to precision, the zero-turn mower is best. It can easily handle tight turns and walled edges much more efficiently than a riding mower can. Certain models can also come with handy cutting features, like STIGA’s Gyro model: ‘The new STIGA Gyro is a battery-powered drive-by-wire joystick system is much easier to use for both first-time zero-turn drivers and for those who are used to steering stick controls. With the garden tractors, you have the option of petrol or battery.
The larger battery STIGA version is very easy to use with all the controls simply actioned through the electronic dashboard. One touch gets you started. Another lets you switch between three STIGA Smart cutting modes – including Eco, which uses 40% less energy.’
When it comes to speed, faster is not necessarily better when it comes to cut quality. Just like rushing a task at work, faster speeds can mean sloppier finishes. The zero-turn mower is typically faster than its riding mower counterpart, but a riding mower typically has better cut quality as it takes its time before moving on. How fast a riding mower goes will depend on the model, but slow and steady wins the race in this case.
Which mower cuts better? We would recommend a zero-turn mower if you value precision and speed over cut quality. If you do not mind being slightly slower and getting a better cut for it, choose a riding mower.
Riding vs zero-turn lawn mower: Which is better for hills?
Hills help make lawns unique and beautiful – but they can be incredibly difficult for certain mowers to cut. Certain lawnmowers are better at handling uneven terrain than others – which will win in this riding vs zero-turn lawnmower showdown?
When mowing hills, safety is a key factor alongside cut quality. Riding mowers are often equipped with safety features like a safety cage or bag as well as rugged wheels and other attachments to help you stay safe. This combined with their slower pace and lighter build makes them much more capable of handling uneven terrain safely.
Zero-turn mowers typically have a much harder time with hills than standard riding mowers do, especially if they are wet. For all their speed and precision, zero-turn mowers are not recommended for especially hilly terrain. They do not have the same attachment and safety options that riding mowers do and are poor at handling wet or angled grass. Their large and heavy weight makes it much more difficult to make it up steep terrain.
If your lawn is particularly hilly or you live in a rainy area, we would recommend getting the riding mower over the zero-turn ones. It would also be best to ensure that you invest in one with proper safety features. Zero-turn mowers are best for more even terrain and sunnier areas.
That being said, innovations in the industry mean that zero-turn mowers are improving rapidly alongside their standard riding counterparts. It may be possible to find a model that will handle being put to the test on uneven terrain. Read customer reviews and take stock of the safety features to see if your desired zero-turn model can handle hills.
Riding vs zero-turn lawn mower: Which is cheaper?
Cost is a major factor when it comes to getting a new lawn mower. We all have a budget and want to get the most bang for our buck in terms of power, features, and more. Both riding mowers and zero-turn models cost thousands of dollars, but which is cheaper?
When it comes to the cost of a mower, it is not just the upfront purchase cost that matters – it is also the running cost. Mowers typically run on either gas or batteries, with battery mowers being both more environmentally friendly and cheaper to run. We recommend checking what fuel your desired model uses and factoring that in terms of maintenance and running costs.
Upfront, riding mowers are typically cheaper to buy than their zero-turn counterparts. You can often find standard riding models for $1200-$10,000 – this is around 30-50 percent cheaper than zero-turn models go for. With zero-turn mowers, you are paying for a complex machine that is highly advanced, meaning that it will cost you more. It is unlikely that you will find a new or good-condition zero-turn mower for less than $3000.
Consider your budget and how much you are willing to spend both upfront and on fuel in the long term. Try searching for seasonal deals or coupon discounts in your local area or online to see if you can get a good deal on a mower. If buying one upfront is not an option for your current budget, it may be worth looking into renting a riding or zero-turn mower locally until you are ready.
If you are on a budget, we recommend choosing a riding mower over a zero-turn model. It is a simpler machine that has been around for longer, meaning that it is typically easier to find cheaper models. If you have the cash to splash and need to invest in a more advanced machine, a zero-turn mower could be a good investment.
Riding vs zero-turn lawn mower: Which is the easiest to use?
The easier something is to use, the more likely it is that you will use it regularly. Lawnmowers are machines that need practice and work like any other, but the easier they are to work with the better.
Generally, a riding lawn mower is easier to use than a zero-turn model. It controls similar to a car and has a less complex build, making controlling and maintaining it easier. Zero-turn mowers, on the other hand, allow you to control each wheel and reverse, which means you will need practice to handle one with ease. As they are such complex machines, many maintenance issues require an expert hand to fix them.
Specific maintenance and control directions will change depending on the model and fuel type. However, it would be good to brush up on changing mower oil, sharpening mower blades, and how to prepare your mower for the summer so you are ready for basic tasks. You can typically find your model’s manual online or in the packaging it came with and the support team can help troubleshoot your mower issues.
The warranty can also be a good indicator of how long the mower will last with regular maintenance. Mower warranties typically last less than ten years and are often broken down into different categories like labor, motor, and parts. Having a comprehensive warranty will make sending for parts or services much easier – make sure to find a good one before you buy a model.
Overall, riding mowers are typically the easiest type of mower to use as zero-turn mowers are more complicated. That being said, some models offer convenient features and warranties, so be sure to shop around to find something that is right for you.
When it comes to riding vs zero-turn mowers, both are excellent tools that work for different types of lawns. As Gary Whitney says: They both have their advantages. Zero-turn mowers can be more expensive, but they are highly efficient…’
We would recommend getting a riding mower if your lawn is less than an acre, is particularly hilly or curvy, and you are on a budget with less storage available. We would suggest getting a zero-turn mower if you have more than an acre of land that is relatively flat and you have the money and storage for it.