When you're choosing a riding lawn mower, one of the first decisions you'll have to make is whether you want the mower's engine to be in front of you or behind you as you mow. The correct choice for you depends on how demanding you're going to be of your mower. A small rear-engine mower might be all you need for light duty, but if you've got big jobs in mind, you'll be better off if you let the mower's power lead the way.
Engine Size and Towing
Rear-engine mowers typically have smaller, less powerful engines than front-engine lawn tractors. Their smaller engines perform adequately for light-duty jobs, but they'll get it done more slowly than a front-engine mower and they may struggle with heavy or wet grass. Rear-engine mowers also are unable to tow trailers, baggers or other accessories, so they're only capable of mowing and not other common lawn and garden chores.
Rear-engine mowers typically have narrower cutting decks than front-engine lawn or garden tractors. Rear-engine decks are usually about 30 inches wide, while tractor decks range from about 42 inches to about 54 inches. The difference means that rear-engine mowers can squeeze into relatively tight spaces, but larger front-engine mowers can mow large lawns more quickly and efficiently. In general, rear-engine mowers work just fine on small lawns, but lawns of an acre or more are better handled by a front-engine tractor.
Handling and Maneuverability
The smaller size of a rear-engine mower helps it maneuver better in small spaces, and visibility in front of the mower is also better. However, the design of rear-engine mowers can adversely affect their handling. In a front-engine tractor, the machine's overall weight is relatively evenly distributed between the front and the back, but the heaviest parts of a rear-engine mower, including the operator, are all in the back of the mower. This unbalanced weight distribution can make the front end of the mower unstable and somewhat difficult to handle, especially on inclines.
Overall, rear-engine mowers are less expensive than front-engine tractors, but there's a great deal of overlap in the middle of the price range for both types of mowers. The least expensive rear-engine models are cheaper than the least expensive tractors, but the most expensive rear-engine mowers cost more than a typical garden tractor. Given the disadvantages of rear-engine mowers in terms of engine size, deck width and versatility, a mid-range lawn tractor is likely to be a better value if you need to mow a sizable lawn.