Pros: Big deck, good motor, nose roller, all the most necessary features.
Cons: Gas hog, slow, poor ergonomics, too tall, difficult for small people to use.
Update 5/2012: After 7 years, the drive belt gave out. No big deal, just a maintenance item, right? No, the manual says take it to your dealer, "special tools required" (impact wrench), but that's just the beginning. If the engine drive pulley is stuck (mine was, and according to several forums, most are after a few years), it becomes a major issue. You have two choices. Cut the metal tabs that prevent you from simply replacing the belt (huh?), or unbolt the engine, tilt it back (one person) and remove/replace belt (second person).
So, there you have it, because of a purposeful design decision, a minor maintenance issue, replacing a belt, becomes a choice of pulling the engine or cutting metal with an angle grinder. I am working alone, so I went with metal cutting.
Then, there's the pulley removal. There's no holes in it, so the only choice is a gear puller. After the angle grinder and the gear puller, you guessed it, there's not much left of the pulley, so reserve another $30+tax for that job. The only good news is once done, the next belt change becames a normal job of slip-on/slip-off. Just like it always should have been. Thanks, MTD.
MTD consumer tractor brands include Bolens, Yard Machines, Huskee, the powerfully ugly yellow and green Yard Man, Toro, and at the top, Wheel Horse and Cub Cadet. They are all based on either the large or small frame, and you'll find a remarkable resemblance between all these models. Each size group shares many of the same components like frames, rear fenders, deck adjuster lever system, etc. Lately MTD has moved to an all cast-iron front axle line-up, down to their lowest-price models (Bolens). The new deck-wash system has also shown up on all high-end and most middle-end models. However there are some very real differences in features and construction between the low-end and high-end. Brand differences, besides the hood styling, include Tecumseh vs. Briggs & Stratton vs Kohler motors, manual transmissions versus hydrostatic, deck and frame metal thickness, and warranty.
The Cub Cadets, being at the top, have the longest warranty, 5 years on some parts for non-commercial use. Beyond this there are Cub Cadet Commercial models, including 4 wheel drive models with 3-point hitches and hydraulics, whose price takes them beyond the scope of comparison in this review. All consumer grade Cubs come with Kohler engines, except some zero-turn models.
The 1500 series fit between the entry-level 1000's (with 42" through 50" decks) and the 2000 lineup, which looks like the 1000/1500's but all have shaft drive. All have nice appointments, like hydrostatic transmission, hour/voltmeters, and big Kohler engines.
MTD has changed the Cub numbering system. It used to be that the middle two digits signified the engine horsepower, the first digit was the series, and the last digit, who knows. Since everything is coming with 18-25 HP engines now, they use a more sensible system where you have the first two digit series number, the last two digits are the deck size. In addition their may be some letters, LT for Lawn Tractor, GT for Garden Tractor (not Gran Tourismo). That leads us to this review, the Cub Cadet SLT 1554... my "Super" Lawn Tractor.
I bought the SLT 1554 at the same local dealer that would end up fixing it if I needed warranty service. I bought it simply because it is the most deck you can get for under $3,000 with a hydrostatic transmission. It has a few touches that make it more appealing than the similar American Yard Products GT5000, like lower list price, and metal deck hub covers you can step on (as opposed to the plastic AYP covers marked "do not step").
For a very low $37, the local dealer delivered my new Cub to my house, showed me how to run it, where the Zerk fittings (grease nipples) were, etc. The steering wheel is about 30 degrees off, and the tires were at a very high 30 and 28 PSI. They should have been 12 and 14 (rear/front). If you have a stiff ride and poor traction on your tractor, check the tire pressure. The tires (Carlisle Turf Savers) are simply not rated for this kind of pressure, even if the rims are. Equipment and backbones both suffer from the resulting pounding. I corrected the tire pressure, noted a 1/4 tank of gas, and started mowing.
Something was missing, though. The SLT-1554's at Lowe's and Tractor Supply had arm rests. The mower from my local dealer did not. Caveat Emptor. It seems the buying power of the big stores allows them to squeeze in one extra little feature. I called the dealer and asked, the upgrade parts would cost $69. I passed.
The turning circle is quite small, providing you turn left. The seat position is commanding, and unnecessarily tall. This Spring I trimmed all my small trees to accomodate my passing underneath on my old 44" Kubota mower. Now I have to break out the KM110R with pole pruner attachment and prune again.
I picked a long, lush, tall rectangular area almost 1/2 acre in size, slightly damp, and mowed blowing the trimmings inward. I kept the peddle floored and the throttle, as it always should be, on high. (The reason it was high is the reason I bought the Cub; my old Kubota's deck adjuster broke down 2 weeks previous). When I got to the last, middle row to mow, the trimmings were piled up high on top of the overgrown grass. I plowed through and for the first time, I heard the deck blades slow a bit, but not the engine. A liquid stream of grass flew out of the chute and I finished the row without ever slowing down.
The Cub passed its first basic test with flying colors. This mower MOWS. It is not cowed nor even respectful of thick high grass, it just cuts it just the same as short dry grass.
Then I ran out of gas. The Cub web page says the tank is 4 gals, it used to say 3.5 gallons. My tractor says 3 gallon fill. I will look deeper into this.
Which brings us to our next topic, the engine. Except for the consumer zero-turns, MTD/Cub Cadet uses largish Kohler V-Twin engines. Well, the 1554 SLT and GT go beyond largish to freakin' huge. 27 HP is simply not necessary to mow with a 54" deck, which is easy enough to demonstrate. Zero-Turn mowers with 18 to 22 HP happily turn 54 to 72 inch decks at speeds of 7.5 to 9.5MPH or faster. So where is all that power going? Nowhere. The top speed of the SLT1554 is only about 5.5MPH. Belt drive is extremely efficient, more efficient than shaft drive... until it slips. Then shaft drive is greatly superior.
Which brings us to the drive system. In mowing side-by-side with my ancient shaft-drive, 44"/12.5HP Kubota, the Cub has a lower top speed, and slows down greatly more on steep hill climbs. Meanwhile the big motor never slows down a bit. What is going on here? Either the hydrostatic tranmission simply doesn't have the capacity to use all that power, or the belt is slipping. Given the slow top speed and lack of squeeling, I think it's the Hydrostatic. It is simply inefficient and ill-matched to this (excellent) monster motor.
I can't complain too much. With a 54" deck for well under $3,000, this is simply the most deck you can get for the money. About 8-9HP of the 27HP useless, it is just bragging rights over the largest of American Yard Product's Craftsman 4000 mowers. I can't even complain about the cost of the engine given the cost of the mower. I only pay the price at the gas pump, and in having to refill before finishing my lawn, unless starting with an absolutely topped-off tank.
After the first mow I tried the DeckWash system. I'm not impressed. While clumps of grass came out, there was plenty left. At least the hose end attachment has a valve in it so it doesn't squirt while you're trying to hook it up.
The deck is the first thing to go on any good mower, because it takes a beating, gets scratched, banged and dented, catches water, and eventually rusts or self destructs. The SLT 1554's has a lip around the edge to reinforce it, that is just designed to catch grass clippings and water. They made a passing nod to the problem by drilling a few drain holes in it, but that won't stop it from holding on to lots of wet grass. I do as the manual suggests, and blow it out with compressed air at the end of every mow.
Frankly one important reason I bought the Cub was the ability to mow in reverse. I simply have too large and complex a yard to give up the time-savings of cutting during the many reversals. Some sections would have to be push-mowed if I didn't have it. The default mode is simply unusable, unless you have one of those rare oval yards with no obstructions. The mower deck simply cuts out when you reverse and DOES NOT START again when you move forward. You have to disengage and reengage the electric PTO knob to get it running again. This is UNUSABLE as designed.
In order to mow in reverse, one simply moves the key back a notch, pushes a button, and tolerates an LED warning light that hurts my eyes even in bright daylight. That is, UNTIL YOU HIT A BUMP. Then you have to:
1. disengage the disengaged mower deck,
2. re-engage the disengaged mower deck,
3. Turn the key to "run",
4. turn the key back to "mow in reverse",
5. push the button again,
6. repeat after next bump.
You see, instead of putting a person-sensor in the seat bottom like Kubota wisely did 15 years ago, the sensor is in the seat pivot, protected by two fairly powerful springs that are always trying to tip you forward and shut the engine down. Being heavy does not help, it works against you. When you head down hill, hitting a bump allows your momentum to pull you forward enough to tip the seat a bit, and everything turns off. A quick push against the Hydrostatic foot pedal (hmm) gets you back to the back of the seat and the engine firing again, but usually the "PTO" (deck drive) and reversal features need to be redone.
Which brings us to that foot pedal. The forward and reverse are integrated on it, just like the Kubota, but it is shaped very differently. On the Kubota, an experienced operator can dance in and out amongst the bushes and everygreens like a big orange ballerina. Not so the Cub. In order to put your foot against the reverse part of the pedal, you have to lift your foot, and either pull against it with your heel or catch it in your instep. Either way you have no finesse, since your foot is otherwise unsupported. The result? Instant reverse wheelspin. On top of that, since it takes a second to lift your foot entirely off the pedal, one has to come to a complete halt and stay there for a moment before slamming ungraciously into reverse.
Kubota- slide in-slide out, smoooooth.
Cut Cadet- slide in, halt, pause, come screaming backwards out, lurch to a halt. Admire wheelspin damage to grass.
This is safer? The combination of having to use the Hydrostatic pedal to keep you in your seat and fight the seat springs is anti-safety. The "feature" of reverse mowing is almost unusable on hills, or bumps, or if you are short of stature. This is one system of ergonomics that STRONGLY rewards disabling the active safety features.
Finally, I must compare the SLT 1554 to the GT 1554. For $400 more,a one gauge heavier deck (where it really matters), a bigger roller system on the deck, bigger wheel rims and tires, larger turning radius (a bad thing) and most importantly, a Power Take-off (PTO) on the Hydrostatic transaxle. If you have a stumpy, rocky, bumpy lawn, most of these upgrades will be worthwhile to you. If you just want to mow, mow, mow (like me), they might not matter. You give up a little of that tight turning radius, though. The only feature not really worthwhile on the GT is the PTO. I'll explain.
There is simply no way to put 27HP through an untoothed belt for ground-engaging tools like a plow. You NEED a shaft drive to do serious "garden tractor" work. If your garden tool has its own power, say a 3.5HP B&S motor, either tractor will do the same amount of pulling. Looking at Cub Cadet's 2500 line is a tacit admission of this; all of them have lower horsepower motors than the 27HP 1554. I am not impressed by the Kevlar in the belt, either. Kevlar has known poor performance when heated, and a slipping belt gets hot, fast.
Low interest rates, high suburban prices and exurban development mean many professionals are buying large lots in the countryside with big sections of their yards only semi-improved. Many of these yards slope beyond the 15 degrees that consumer mowers are allowed to mow. The combination of very low uphill speed, moderate level speed and anti-safety, anti-consumer devices that beg to be disconnected make the SLT 1554 a poor choice for this market segment.