Review - Ride-on mowers

How easy is it to get the hang of zero-turn models with stick-steer levers? Sally Drury finds out.

Kubota ZD326
Kubota ZD326

Tested This Issue

Kubota ZD326
John Deere 997
Gianni Ferrari Turbo Z230 and Turbograss 992
Toro Z Master 152
Amazone Profihopper iDrive and Profihopper 4WDi

The Review Panel

Mark Ekin, teacher, Broomfield Hall Campus, Derby College

Mike Baldwin, director of learning, Broomfield Hall Campus, Derby College

When you need to mow in a hurry but still want a smart finish, there is nothing quite like a zero-turn mower to do the job. Nippy in the extreme, these machines turn on the spot to save time at headlands.

They zing round trees and obstacles. With the deck towards the front, most can poke their noses under benches and shrubs to save time trimming up with a walk-behind model or corded trimmer. Saving time also means saving money and there are also some incredibly comfortable zero-turn mowers that provide relaxing seating for a full day's work.

But most zero-turn mowers have stick-steer levers in place of a steering wheel. This seems to be the feature that puts most people off. It is more like driving a tank than a ride-on mower. But it is not that difficult. To test how quickly stick-steer novices take to the controls, we invited 20 horticulture and countryside students to have a go.

Within minutes they had mastered the controls and were zipping around the golf course at our test site as though they had been driving zero-turns for years. "It's simple. Just like computer games," one student told me.

The test was carried out at the Broomfield Hall Campus of Derby College. A heavy dew in the morning was then followed by dry and sunny conditions.

Kubota ZD326

If you have never driven a ZD326, you have to try one. It's a blast. While it may not be the fastest machine in our test, it still zips down the straights at great speed and is more than nippy round the trees. Furthermore, we cannot fault the quality of cut. This mower also sets the high standards needed by day-in, day-out users working in a commercial environment.

At the heart of the machine is Kubota's bombproof 26hp D1055 three-cylinder, liquid-cooled diesel engine. It's got guts, plenty of torque and power. Importantly, it's known for reliability. In fact, the machine feels rock solid. The shaft-driven ZD326 is also fitted with an integral-type, twin hydro transmission and wet clutch power take-off (PTO), with wet inboard disk brakes.

Maintenance looks a breeze. Everything you need to get at is accessible. Undo a clip to lift the rear cover and access the engine, dipstick, air cleaner, radiator and expansion bottle. Tip the seat and you find the hydrostatic unit. Want to get to the cutters? No problem. This mower has a neat trick. Simply unpin the castor wheels, unclip the handle from the deck, insert it into the jack socket and wind. The deck gracefully lifts up and back to reveal the blades.

Comfort has not been overlooked by the Kubota design team. This machine has a full-flat platform making it easy to access and exit the seat and giving ample legroom. The seat itself is a high-back deluxe suspension type. It's comfy and it banishes the bumps and jolts of driving over rough ground.

The main control console is positioned to the right of the operator. Cleverly, Kubota has used the same colour coding for the mower controls as it uses on its tractors - yellow for PTO and orange for transmission/engine speed - so there is no excuse for being confused. Cutting height adjustment is on a dial and could not be simpler - lift the deck, dial the height, drop the deck.

Ekin likes the sportiness of the ZD326 and finds that the deep deck helps it cut at speed. "It's a really nice machine, easy to handle and steers well," he says. "Vibration is low, noise is low and there are plenty of features to give confidence - the deck skirt, the spindle bearings, the lift linkage - it's all commercial grade."

Both our testers rate this machine highly, as do the horticulture students. We reckon that contractors, local authorities, golf courses, caravan parks and estates would not be disappointed.

Engine: Kubota D1055, three-cylinder, liquid cooled, diesel - 26hp at
3,200rpm (displacement: 1,001cc)
Overall dimensions: (LxWxH) 185.4x222x191.5cm
Wheelbase: 146cm
Weight: 771kg
Forward speed: 0-9.3mph (0-15kmph)
Reverse speed: 0-5.1mph (0-8.3kmph)
Fuel tank capacity: 45 litres
Mowing width: 60in (152.4cm)
Cutting height: 1-5in in quarter-inch increments (25.4-127mm in 6.35mm
Number of blades: Three
Deck: Fabricated, 4.2mm and 4.6mm thick, rear discharge
Mounting system: Parallel linkage
Blade tip speed: 15,100ft/min (4,602.48m/min)
List price: £12,470 + VAT
Tel: Kubota - 01844 214500

John Deere 997

When you see green and yellow streak past at high speed, it has to be a John Deere. This machine is JD's solution to cutting down mowing time and costs. It's fast and has terrific manoeuvrability.

Equipped with a direct-injection Yanmar diesel engine, the 997 has more displacement and peak torque. Also key to this machine are the shaft-driven mower deck, hydraulic PTO clutch and single-body pump, along with the heavy-duty chassis. This is a strong unit. Access for maintenance is straight forward, via the hood, under the seat or, in the case of the cutters, by removing a double-bolted tray on the platform.

But you have to sit on this mower to really appreciate it. The seat itself is wide, high-backed and has deep cushioning. It provides a commanding view over the cutting operation. We cannot fault it, but for sheer luxury you might want to upgrade to the suspension seat to tailor weight and suspension to personal preference.

Controls are easy to master. The deck-lift button raises the deck right to the top and can be operated on the move to take a run over longer grass or to alter cutting height via the dial. In the event of an emergency, a panic button on the stick-steer lever brings the blades to a halt without you looking for an on/off switch.

We also like the no-rattle folding roll bar. It's a clever design that removes the irritating chatter normally associated with a folding roll over protection structure (ROPS) yet causes no delay when the bar has to be lowered for under-tree mowing.

"It's a nice machine. It's got a good cutting speed and gives a quality cut," says Ekin. "It's simple to lift and lower the deck and I like the fact the deck is completely clear - there's no pedals, nothing at all to confuse the novice operator. The controls are dead easy, although the gap to place the sticks in neutral is a bit narrow."

However, Baldwin notes: "You have to remember that this machine is a bit longer than the others - you have to watch the back end as you whizz round."

Unfortunately, a bad electrical connection beneath the PTO on/off switch brought our mowing to an early end, although it was still possible to drive the machine.

Engine: Yanmar three-cylinder diesel - 29hp (displacement: 1,330cc)
Overall dimensions: (LxH) 243x193cm with ROPS
Weight: 805kg
Forward speed: 0-11.5mph (0-18.5kmph)
Reverse speed: 0-5mph (0-8kmph)
Fuel tank capacity: 45.5 litres
Mowing width: 60/72in (153/182cm)
Cutting height: 1.5-5in (38-127mm)
Number of blades: Three
Deck: Fabricated, 4.5mm thick, rear-discharge (side-discharge 7-Iron
one-piece stamped optional)
List price: From £16,686 + VAT
Tel: John Deere - 01949 860491

Gianni Ferrari Turbo Z230 and Turbograss 992

Not the speediest machines in the test, but these Italian-built zero-turners nevertheless prove their worth in other ways. Both, for instance, offer outstanding agility. They are compact and nimble, and capable of seriously accurate mowing, especially along boundaries, beside borders or bunkers and around trees and obstacles.

As with the vast majority of other zero-turn mowers, the Gianni Ferrari machines are stick steer. But in addition to the two steering stick levers, these machines have a third to control speed. It may sound complicated, but don't let the thought of three levers put you off.

Having speed control separate from steering helps with accuracy of steering and mowing while still maintaining the degree of nippiness that makes you opt for a zero-turner in the first place - though it has to be said, the Turbo Z is not the comfiest of rides. We reckon that this one is probably going to be better on the flat rather than bumpy terrain.

"Ouch," yells Ekin. He has banged his head on the cage-like ROPS of the Turbograss 992. Yet this machine is a favourite of the students. One of the taller ones shows how it is done, quickly jumping into the seat using the ROPS frame as leverage - as you might if stepping into a racing car.

For Ekin, the Turbograss did provide a more comfortable ride with fewer jolts on uneven ground. A better view of the operation could not be had. "You are sitting right at the front of the machine. It's almost the same as sitting in a mini-excavator," he comments.

Beeping indicates that the hopper is full so he disappears to the edge of a copse to empty it. The collector drops back into its cradle with an almighty thud. "I thought I'd been shot," says Ekin. But this machine cannot be beaten on quality of cut. This is largely down to the blades turning in the opposite direction compared with traditional mower decks.

If you need a zero-turn - one capable of collection - for sites such as intricately landscaped grounds, it could be worth taking a closer look. In addition, GF mowers can also be fitted with a scarifier, mulching deck or snow blade.


Turbo Z230
Engine: Vanguard V-Twin, air-cooled, 23hp petrol (displacement: 627cc)
Overall dimensions: (LxWxH) 165x102x105cm
Weight: 300kg
Maximum speed: 8mph (13kmph)
Fuel tank capacity: 40 litres
Mowing width: 44in (112cm)
Cutting height: 0.4-3.5in (10-90mm), infinitely variable
Number of blades: Three
Deck: Pressed steel, mulching, rear discharge (flail deck optional)
List price: £5,800 + VAT
Tel: Stuart Taylor - 01254 813175

Turbograss 992
Engine: Kubota D902, three-cylinder, 22hp diesel (displacement: 898cc)
Overall dimensions: (LxWxH) 260/285x102x105cm
Weight: 500kg
Maximum speed: 5mph (8kmph)
Fuel tank capacity: 25 litres
Mowing width: 43in or 51in (110cm or 130cm)
Cutting height: 0.8-3.15in (20-80mm), infinitely variable
Number of blades: Three
Deck: Collection (rear-discharge/mulching deck optional)
Collection: hopper 500 or 700 litres, lowor high-tip, with audible
warning and hydraulic dumping
List price: From £9,138 + VAT
Tel: Stuart Taylor - 01254 813175

Toro Z Master 152

"Wow, that was fast." Ekin dismounts from Toro's latest-generation 6000 Series Z Master zero-turn mower. "But look, the cutting is fine - no problem at all". He was mowing like greased lightning but the blades provided a first-class finish.

Smooth and responsive, this mower is a great ride. It's fun and exciting, and the low centre of gravity lends stability on sloping ground, maintaining traction and thus control of the machine. Visibility is good to the front, sides and rear, and you can keep an eye on the wheels to help with doughnut-less turning.

It is also comfortable. The seat can be adjusted to suit the weight of the operator and seriously reduces the bumps and jolts encountered when mowing at high speed. Somewhat tiring though is the foot pedal providing the lift and lower of the cutting deck - it presents a steep step, it's stiff and if you need to do it often it's like a workout in the gym.

The controls are easy to use and well laid out on the console to the right of the operator. A digital clock and display provides useful information such as PTO time, parking brake engagement, transmission status, fuel level and a battery warning light.

Maintenance also looks straightforward. There are two bolts holding a plate that gives access to the deck. A stand is available as an on-board tool to elevate the front end for access to the underside of the deck. Hydraulics are also where we would expect them - under the seat. Round the back of the machine, we find the engine and battery. We cannot really miss them. There is no cover, no hood and no bonnet.

"That can't be right," says Ekin. The brochure shows the Z-Master with the rear covered. The machine we borrow is brand new - we can almost smell the wet paint. Perhaps the bonnet is still drying somewhere.

Engine: Kawasaki FX801V, 25.5hp at 3,600rpm, petrol (displacement:
Overall dimensions: (LxWxH) 168x222x179cm including ROPS
Weight: 590kg
Forward speed: 0-11.5mph (0-18.5kmph)
Reverse speed: 0-7mph (0-11.3kmph)
Fuel tank capacity: 45.4 litres
Mowing width: 60in (152.4cm)
Cutting height: 0.98-5.5in in 0.25in increments (25-140mm in 6.4mm inc.)
Number of blades: Three
Deck: Turbo Force rear discharge
Blade tip speed: 18,500ft/min (5,638m/min)
List price: £9,999 + VAT
Tel: Toro Grounds Products - 01279 723444

Amazone Profihopper iDrive and Profihopper 4WDi

Our tests do not always go quite to plan. We wanted to try Amazone's Profihopper - the well-known zero-turner with flail and collector - but we wanted it with SmartCut. This is a brand new cutting rotor. It's so new that when we enquired about it there was a limited number in the UK and Amazone had just sold the last one. New stock would not be available until the week after the test.

A compromise was agreed. We would trial the iDrive stick-steer Profihopper with the standard rotor and we would look at the four-wheel drive version, which was available with the SmartCut rotor. Both have a 1.25m cutting width and a collecting system based on an auger that packs the cut grass so tightly into the "Compactor" collector that it in effect increases capacity from 700 litres (730 litres on the "i" versions) to something more like 1,000 litres.

Furthermore, both machines make excellent scarifiers and leaf/debris collectors, and tipping is at a height of 2.1m - easily reaching into skips or over fences.

Thanks to the hydrostatic drive, the zero-turn Profihopper has all the manoeuvrability you can expect or want. It cruises down the straights at a little over 6mph and then turns on the spot for the second run. The action of the auger means the mower can cope with long grass - up to 50cm tall - and can be used in wet conditions with little danger of blocking. This mower also stripes.

The 4WDi version differs by having a steering wheel rather than stick-steer levers for intuitive steering and an intelligent four-wheel drive system that can adjust the speed of the drive to each of the four wheels. This means that each wheel is controlled individually.

It is not a true zero-turn but it is as close as you get, and we like it. "It gives an excellent alternative to stick steer," says Ekin. Baldwin also scores this model highly.

The build quality of these machines is sound. We are impressed with the engineering. A lot of thought has gone into the design. The cooling system, for instance, has a fan that frequently reverses to clear the air-intake vent of grass clippings. But what impresses both testers most is the quality of cut, especially the new SmartCut. These are flail mowers. They cut long grass and they leave an outstanding finish.


Profihopper iDrive
Engine: Lombardini three-cylinder, 24.5hp diesel (displacement: 1,028cc)
Overall dimensions: (LxWxH) 267x146cmx156cm
Weight: 955kg
Forward speed: 0-6.2mph (0-10kmph)
Reverse speed: 0-3.72mph (0-6kmph)
Fuel tank capacity: 20 litres
Mowing width: 49in (125cm)
Cutting height: 1-5in, 0.25in increments (25.4-127mm, 6.35mm increments)
Number of blades: 72 flails
Collector: 700 litres, hydraulic tipping
List price: £26,150 + VAT
Tel: Amazone - 01302 751200

Profihopper 4WDi
Engine: Lombardini three-cylinder, 24.5hp diesel (displacement: 1,028cc)
Overall dimensions: (LxWxH) 279x148x199cm
Weight: 1,100kg
Forward speed: 0-7.5mph (0-12kmph)
Reverse speed: 0-3.72mph (0-6kmph)
Fuel tank capacity: 20 litres
Mowing width: 49in (125cm)
Cutting height: As above
Number of blades: 72 flails
Collector: 730 litres, hydraulic tipping
List price: £27,795 + VAT
Tel: Amazone - 01302 751200

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