To make the cut with savvy consumers, today's lawn mowers are packed with features. They have to be. Robo vacuum cleaners are getting to be mainstream these days. Driverless cars are in the news. Customers -- and their phones -- are very smart, and they expect their lawnmowers to be on top of things, too.
"Consumers' expectations are that the products and services they want can be customized to suit their needs," says Wade Tollison, senior marketing manager for walk-behind mowers at Toro. Today's high-performance grass-cutting machines rely as much on sophisticated technology as on raw horsepower. They're easier to use and maintain than ever before. Gasoline mowers still dominate the market, but battery-powered electric mowers are charging into the future.
Consumers shopping for lawn mowers have an astonishing number of choices. Easy-to-start, self-propelled gas mowers are the most popular models, but battery-powered mowers, with zero emissions, already represent 15 percent of all mower sales, says Paul Hope, who tests mowers and writes about the results for Consumer Reports. The top-rated battery-powered mowers do not compromise quality or performance. These mowers "have gotten really good," Hope says. "We are now starting to see electric models that perform as well as gas."
Nevertheless, "the industry is a little bit in flux right now," Hope says. Gas mowers run indefinitely, as long as you have a can of gas, while battery-powered mowers have a finite range: They may need a charge, which means you have to stop mowing, before you finish a large yard. Electric mowers also cost more than gas mowers.
Lawn tractors and zero-turn mowers, both popular with consumers who have an acre or more to mow, cut the grass on large properties uniformly, quickly and safely, say Mark Waldvogel and Jamie Palmer, product managers at John Deere. These big mowers are comfortable to ride, and they are designed to chop grass clippings quite fine, which is good for the lawn.
Most people with large properties do not bag their clippings, but they're not happy when the grass clumps under the deck in mulching mode or forms big windrows when the grass is being discharged out the side. New lawn tractors and zero-turn mowers have deep decks and are more efficient mulchers than the previous generation of mowers, Waldvogel says. Switching between the mulch and side discharging functions used to require several steps, but new machines can be switched easily from one mode to the other -- so you can mulch the grass close to the house, or blow clippings out the side of the mower elsewhere.
Although cutting grass is just a chore to many homeowners, others really like to mow, Waldvogel says, and comfortable, easy-to-operate lawn tractors are part of the reason. Zero-turn mower customers want maneuverability and speed, so they can cut the grass and get on with their Saturday.
Several electric lawn tractors and zero-turn mowers are already available. Ryobi and Cub Cadet make them, and both have earned good reviews from Consumer Reports, in spite of some limitations. Mean Green Products, in Hamilton, Ohio, makes a heavy-duty, battery-powered zero-turn mower called the Nemesis that can mow three to five acres on a charge. It's almost as big as a commercial lawn mower. It is also a luxury purchase ($9,000 for the basic model). "If you own a Tesla, drive a hybrid car or have solar panels on your roof, you are a candidate for our mower," says Joe Conrad, founder and president of Mean Green Mowers. The company even makes a mower canopy with built-in solar panels to recharge the batteries.
Regardless of the source of power, the dominant trend among all mowers is toward consumer-friendly features. One of the latest walk-behind models by Toro includes power reverse, "an exciting, unmet need," Tollison says, that eliminates tugging a heavy lawn mower backward repeatedly when mowing around trees. The company's PoweReverse mower's handle has shock absorbers, to reduce hand fatigue. With the flip of a switch, you can change from bagging the clippings to side discharge. Push-button starting is a standard feature on some Toro mowers, eliminating the annoyance of a pull cord. Several new Toro mowers can be folded up and stored upright, without leaking oil or gas. "We live in clutter nation," Tollison says. "This mower needs 70 percent less storage space."
And how about robotic mowers that cut the grass all by themselves? Last year, Honda introduced its robo Miimo mower, designed for tech-savvy consumers. It's a hot product that commands a premium price ($2,500 to $2,700). At present, this mower works only on very short turf types, those kept between one and 2 1/2 inches high, so it's not for everyone. It can be programmed to mow an entire lawn, steer around trees or just trim the edges around flower beds. When it's finished working, it returns automatically to its charging station, while you sip lemonade on the patio.
Honda also makes a dozen different self-propelled and push-type walk-behind gas-powered mowers, including electric-start mowers with cruise control, and mowers with sophisticated bagging systems that allow homeowners to mulch and bag at the same time, ergonomic handlebars and an exclusive twin-blade mowing system.
So what's next? Hope, at Consumer Reports, predicts more choices in every category, a continued emphasis on convenience, and a narrowing gap between the performance and prices of gas and electric mowers. Depending on your yard and your preferences, "there is a case to be made for keeping the old mower a few years, while electrics get even better," Hope says. "But if you are ready to embrace electric and pay a little more for it, it's here."
-- To compare the features of lawnmowers, check manufacturers' web sites: toro.com, deere.com, powerequipment.honda.com, and others. For electric mowers, see especially egopowerplus.com, ryobitools.com and meangreenproducts.com.
-- Consumer Reports takes a close look at new lawn mowers every year, testing them in Florida during the winter and publishing the results in the magazine every summer. This year, the CR lawn mower overview and results will be in the magazine's June issue. An overview of mowers and recent recommendations is also available on the Consumer Reports website, consumerreports.org.