Pros: Heavy chassis, strong engine, fabricated steel deck; absolutely level cut
Cons: Changing engine oil is not simple and easy.
Allow me to preface my review by saying that I have been mowing grass for nearly fifty years -- first, as a kid living at home, then for the last thirty years or so as a renter and now homeowner. I have had good mowers and bad mowers. The bad ones I want to forget, but the good ones still stand out in my mind, such as a Cub Cadet 10 hp with Kohler engine (they don't make them like that anymore -- cast iron front end!). But, I never had a truly exceptional mower until I bought a Dixon RAM ZTR. Let me tell you how I came to buy it and why I think it is the best mower for the money -- bar none!
The house we live in today we built thirteen years ago in a subdivision. We were fortunate to get a corner lot. Because I didn't want my future backyard neighbor on my doorstep, I bought the lot behind me as well and turned it into a big backyard. About eight years ago, I bought a Snapper Yardmaster ZTR mower with a 36" deck. It had a joystick instead of the two levers you usually see on ZTR mowers. It worked fine for about the first four years, then I became very dissatisfied with it. The problem? It would not cut evenly. I suffered through this for the next four years. Yes, I tried to level it. In fact, I spent hours trying to level it. It was impossible to level. Whichever side you lowered, right or left, the other side would cut the grass high, leaving my yard with ridges. Ugh!!!
Before I continue, I want to describe the benefits of ZTR hydrostatic drive technology for those of you who might not yet know how they work. ZTR or "zero turning radius" refers to how the mower is driven and steered. ZTR's employ two hydrostatic transmissions. One drives the left rear wheel, the other the right. These transmissions are usually run by a belt system. The belt connects to the drive pulley/electic clutch assembly, which is attached to a vertical shaft engine. The engine sits above and usually slightly forward of the hydrostatic drives, which immediately gives the mower a low center of gravity, as well as weight for good traction over the drive wheels. The drive shaft extends below the frame where it lies in the same plane as the transmission pullies. The operator manipulates a left and right lever, which are in front of him, to drive and steer.
Now, this is more complicated to describe than it is to learn and do. Assuming we are talking about a two lever mower (which I recommend as far better than the now largely defunct Snapper joystick configuration), starting from the neutral position, push both levers forward and you go forward, back and you go back. Pull back slightly on the left lever and you will go back turning left. Pull back on the right and you will go back to the right. Push both levers forward and you will go straight (if they are adjusted properly). Put slightly more bias on the right, less on the left, and you will go left. Put more bias on the left, less on the right, and you will go right. When you bias one wheel you speed it up, causing you to move left or right, whichever wheel it is.
You can turn as sharply and quickly as you want by slowing down one wheel, stopping it, or even making it turn slowly in reverse, while moving the other wheel forward. For instance, you can stop the left wheel altogether and have the right wheel turning, which will cause you to turn left in virtually a zero degree radius. Think of it as something like a figure skater performing a pirouette. She/he spins on one skate, while the other pushes to begin the action. In the case of ZTR mowers, you can turn so sharp as to have the one wheel roll around the vertical axis of the other. However, in practice I don't recommend this -- unless, of course, you are trying to impress your friends. Why? Because if you do this, i.e., spin in a tight radius, especially if it is springtime and the ground is still wet, you will tear up your lawn. Then, you will be out there later with grass patch trying to repair the damage. I would do the quick pirouette only on pavement where you do no harm, except grind rubber off your tires.
ZTR's are popular today because, unlike conventional yard tractors, you can mow very close to your landscaping, thus reducing the amount of trimming you have to do. And, if you are like me, trimming is the absolute worst part of mowing.
Now, back to the discussion. I finally became so frustrated with my Snapper Yardmaster that I decided it was time for a change. I pretty much knew what I wanted. There is a Dixon dealer in our town with whom I had talked many times. I had nearly gone for a Dixon when I bought the Snapper; but at that time, Dixon's residential models were using their patented mechanical drive, which I felt was inferior to hydrostatic pump drives. Apparently, Dixon felt the same because now everything has changed. Dixon's residential models are all pretty much slightly lightened versions of its top of the line commercial ZTR's; and all are hydrostatically driven.
What do I like about my Dixon RAM 44? Well, for one thing it is built heavy. Weighing in at 650 lbs., you know from the moment you sit down that you are on a solid piece of equipment that should last you many years. I also like the engine. The RAM 44 comes with a 26 hp twin cylinder Briggs & Stratton. This is a bear of an engine. When cutting through grass as high as 6-8 inches or more, it doesn't falter or slow down in the least. Amazing! I like the 44 inch deck. I almost went for the RAM 50, but in the end I did not think I needed a deck that wide.
Now, if you go to the Dixon website (http://www.dixon-ztr.com/) or talk to a Dixon dealer, you may become a little confused about the differences between a RAM 44 and a RAM MAG 44. There are basically two differences. First, the RAM 44 comes only with the B&S engine. The RAM MAG 44 can be had with one of three engines, a 20 hp Kohler Command Pro, a 24 hp Kohler Courage V-Twin OHV (overhead valves), or a 20 hp Honda. I don't consider these engine differences significant, though some might. I like the B&S 26 hp.
The second difference lies in the way the transmissions are lubricated. Though both the RAM 44 and RAM MAG 44 use the same transmissions, the RAM 44's transmissions are not pressurized. That is, the fluid lies in a sump at the bottom of the transmission and is distributed by being picked up by the gear assembly as it turns. The RAM MAG 44 transmissions are fitted with what are called "charge pumps," which keep the two transmissions under pressure at all times when operating. Charge pumps are clear evidence of the RAM MAG's commercial mower heritage. If you mow a hillside regularly, for instance, it would probably be better to spend the extra $400 or so and get the RAM MAG, since the charge pumps should prevent the problem of excessive wear on the transmissions for lack of continuous lubrication. For those of you whose yards are relatively flat, or who only have a small hill, the RAM 44 is more than adequate. I would definitely buy the RAM MAG if I were using my mower commercially or semi-commercially.
What else do I like? I like the fact that the mower deck is fabricated; it is cut out of 11 gauge steel and welded together, not stamped like lesser mowers. Oh yes, you can buy a cheaper ZTR, like John Deere's model sold through Lowe's. But, look closely. The deck is stamped steel, not welded. "Who cares," you say? You care -- or at least ought to. For, this is the precise reason why my Snapper could not mow evenly. You see, stamped metal decks are not as strong. They are fine until you accidently hit something like a rock, or (in my case) a water line cover or manhole cover in my yard. (I really don't ever remember doing this, but I must have.) Now, you say, "I will never hit anything, so it doesn't matter." But, even as you say that, you know it's not true. The problem is, once you hit something with the blades turning, maybe just glancing off a rock or something relatively hard or immovable, it is possible that when the blade came in contact with that object, the speed at which it was turning placed enough torsion on the deck where the spindle is bolted, that it put a slight twist in the deck at that point. Also, metal fatigue caused by fast-spinning blades over a period of years makes this "twist" even more likely. The result it that the blade is now no longer turning parallel with the ground or perpendicular with the other blades, all of which in the end translates into an inability to cut evenly anymore. And, no amount of laying on your garage floor, trying to level the deck, and cursing the day you bought "this lousy mower" is going to changeor make it better.
I suppose you can take it to the dealer and have him heat the deck with an acetylene torch (or do it yourself if you have such equipment) and beat it with a hammer; but in the end, you probably will not be satisfied. Hit a rock or pipe or something with this Dixon, and you may nick the blade, but you will not deform the deck. This deck is of commercial quality: the tops and sides, pulleys and spindles are commercial grade, fabricated steel. I wouldn't be the like the captain of the Titanic and dare to look for trouble; but neither do I find myself fretting about cutting grass in the spring when it is the thickest and most lush around here.
Just one complaint: Changing oil on the Dixon RAM 44 with the 26 hp Briggs & Stratton engine is a real pain. As stated above, almost all ZTR's, Dixon included, use a vertical shaft engine. One of the problems with this particular engine on this particular mower chassis is that access to the crankcase oil drain plug is very difficult to reach. In fact, it is so well hidden that it took me a while to find it the first time I changed the oil.
Basically, the plug is located to the front and left of the crankcase, underneath the generator/starter. There is very little clearance between the starter and the side and bottom of the chassis. There is no access from beneath the mower: the engine is bolted to a heavy gauge steel mounting plate that is welded to the sides and rear of the chassis. A man with normal size hands will have trouble getting his hands underneath the starter and opening the plug. There is barely room to stick a small flashlight into the area to enable one to see. And, even if you do get the flashlight to shine on the plug, it is almost completely obscured by the starter.
The plug is one of those quick open/close plastic plugs -- i.e., push in, turn slightly, and pull out. The problem is that the first time you open it, the mechanism may be stiff. The fact that you have to go by feel rather than sight exasperates the situation. You can actually turn it far enough to the left that instead of opening the plug, you end up unscrewing the plug, which releases all the crankcase oil (almost two quarts) all over the garage floor. In fact, be prepared to put news papers down as well as your drain pan. The plug accommodates a clear plastic drain hose, which you can thread down through a hole to the rear of the chassis and into your drain pan. But putting it on the end of the plug first, opening the plug and getting the oil to drain without making a mess is frustrating.
The only good thing about this plug is that it has a yellow safety cap to prevent the oil from leaking out if the plug should happen to open while operating the mower. But, frankly, this makes me almost as nervous as the plug itself. If you don't get the plug closed properly, the only thing standing between a full complement of oil and an empty crankcase ruined engine is one little flimsy safety cap. So make sure the plug is properly closed and locked. You'll know soon enough whether you did it right, because if the safety cap is off, and you start pouring new oil into the crankcase, it will be draining out onto your floor as you pour.
I estimate changing the oil to be nearly a one hour job; and, you need to change your oil every 25 hours of operation. This is the only faulty engineering I have found so far in this machine.
FURTHER UPDATE 7/31/2008:
I wrote to Dixon concerning the above problem and received an immediate response the next day. Dixon is aware of this problem and is working on a fix for its new mowers with the 26 hp B&S engine for 2009. In the meantime, they suggest using an inexpensive hand pump, such as you will find at stores that sell lawnmowers and small engine parts. Such pumps generally have two hoses -- one that you place down the oil fill pipe to suck out the oil, the discharge hose you place in a container. Some of these pumps have their own container, so that all you have to do is place the intake hose into the crankcase and pump.
I thanked the Dixon rep. for writing; but I noted that the such pump systems, while convenient, do not usually get all the metal filings that are generated during normal break-in and use. These fall to the bottom of the crankcase. This is the reason why oil drains on all types of internal combustion engines are at the lowest point. I went on to suggest that instead of simply addressing the problem on new mowers, Dixon should at least consider making the parts available to registered owners at no charge. The fix he describe is simple and, in my estimation, will not cost much. That way, if the owner can't install the fix himself or doesn't want to, he can pay the dealer to do it.
So far, I have not received anything else. I would not allow this problem, to which I have devoted a lot of attention, turn me away from purchasing a RAM 44. It's an annoyance to be sure, but not a deal-breaker.
My Dixon dealer was great! He doesn't take trades, but he was willing to take my Snapper, sit it on his lot, sell it, and give me the selling price to apply to my new RAM 44. I, of course, told him that the Snapper was not cutting evenly; he told me what probably was causing it (see above); he tried it out at home and said it was not very bad and that someone would be willing to buy it as is. He was right. I got $900 for it. The Dixon RAM 44 was $4995, so I ended up with about $4000 in in my RAM 44.
But, that's not all. You see, here in Kentucky, it is very easy to build up lawn killing thatch if you don't bag your grass. Some people are okay with thatch, but I'm not. My Snapper had a bagger attachment, and I came to see this spring that my Dixon should have one as well. I went to the dealer and, long story short, I bought a two bag system for just under $1000. That was a good price, however, because the Dixon bagging system employs a blower which sucks the grass out of the side discharge and blows it back into the bags. I can't tell you how sweet this system works! Words just don't describe it. I will never have thatch to worry about. Yes, it looks a little like a monstrosity with the blower, huge black hose, and top chute with bags below; and it sounds a bit like a turbine engine; but, it works better than anything I have ever seen. If you buy a Dixon and are picky about your lawn dying on you because you don't like to rake grass, consider buying the bagging system with it. You won't regret it.
I hope this review, lengthy as it is, has been helpful. When I find a product that I really like, that really does what it claims to do, a product that is made by American hands right here in the good old USA, I become an enthusiast. And, I am enthusiastic about my Dixon mower.
Oh, and one last thing: the day I bought my Dixon I asked my dealer, "Do you absolutely guarantee that this mower will cut level, that there will be no ridges?" He replied, "I guarantee it. You will have a level lawn." He was right. It is as level as an old fashioned flat top crew cut. Thank you, Dixon! Thank you, my Dixon dealer!