The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and you have an insatiable hankering for some meat. Grilling season has officially arrived, my friends—and so I spent the last month and change grilling meats, veggies, and bread in a quest to find the best gas grill you can score for $500 or less.
Sure, you can get a functional gas grill for just a couple hundred bucks at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s (hell, even my grocery store sells these kinds of grills now). But all the cheaper gas grills I perused just felt janky. To be clear: If you want to get cookin’ without laying down a substantial amount of cash, your best bet is to pick up a quality charcoal grill, which will arguably deliver better flavor than even the priciest gas grill and costs at least half as much as anything that burns propane instead of briquettes.
In fact, some grilling die-hards will tell you not to waste your money on any gas grill, no matter its cost, because the food comes out that much better when it’s cooked over charcoal or in a smoker. But that advice only applies if you use the grill in the first place. This is where gas grills shine—they’re just so dang convenient. And convenience likely means you’ll use it on a regular basis, maybe even every day until the wicked winds of winter force you back indoors.
For this Battlemodo, I picked four gas grills that are all around $500: the Weber Spirit II E-310, the Fuego Professional F24C, the Broil King Baron S320—all of which currently retail for $500—and the CharBroil Gas2Coal, which will run you just $430. At this price, you’ll get a grill somewhere between 300 and 530 square inches in cooking surface, two to four burners, and maybe some bonus features that sweeten the pot. But as I discovered, size and the number of burners have little to do with what makes a grill great.
To find the best of the bunch, I put these grills to the fire in three tests: Design, heat-up time, and cooking quality.
Most gas grills look same, at least at a distance. But some manufacturers are changing things up. The Weber I tested, for example, comes in an array of colors (I picked the blue one!), while the Fuego adds extra styling with a minimalist reimagining of a classic kettle charcoal grill. (Fun fact: The Fuego was designed by Robert Brunner, Apple’s former design chief before Jonathan Ive took over in 1997.) The CharBroil and the Broil King both have that standard gas grill look, but both are plenty attractive. No one is going to point at you and laugh at how dumb your grill looks if you go with any of these hot boxes.
Thing is, when it comes to grills, the look of the thing is secondary to the build quality and, just as important, how easy it is to set up.
To assess build quality, I’d hoped to assemble all four grills myself, but the CharBroil arrived at my house fully built, so that ruled out that test. The rest I put together. So, while this isn’t an entirely fair assessment because I got off the hook on building the CharBroil, the Weber and Feugo were the easiest to assemble, with the Feugo only taking about 45 minutes to unpack and build, while the Weber took about an hour. The Broil King, however, took approximately three hours from start to finish thanks to the staggering number and variety of screws and the poor quality of the instructions.
Of the four, the Weber clearly felt the sturdiest, with a heavy lid and well-engineered parts that easily fit together. The Fuego, too, is clearly solid in its construction and engineering, which is a big part of why it was so simple to assemble. The CharBroil and Broil King inspire less confidence. And while we only used these grills for a couple weeks—as opposed to, say, a year—I’d bet this pair would be the first to start deteriorating, based only on their overall sturdiness. But that’s just a hunch.
To test set-up time, we disconnected the propane tanks and removed the cooking grates and flavor bars (yes, that’s what those metal pieces that go over the burners are actually called)—the parts that you’ll have to put on and take off over the life of the grill. Based on our tests, all four grills performed well and none took more than a minute and a half to set up from full tear-down—even for someone who’s never set them up before. But this is a battle, dammit, and there must be a winner.
The slowest was, unsurprisingly, also the largest—sorry, CharBroil. The additional grates and flavor bars added just a few more seconds to its set-up time. The Fuego came in third, despite that it only has one flavor “bar” (it’s actually just a single sheet of metal that goes over the circular burners) and a single, terrifyingly heavy grate. (Seriously, do not get your fingers stuck under that thing.) In a near-tie, Broil King lost by just two seconds to the Weber, which makes things simple by storing the propane tank on the side of the grill rather than inside a cabinet, as all three other grills do. While some may find the propane tank unsightly, having it readily visible makes checking whether the gas is on as simple as taking a quick glance. (The Weber also has the unique feature, among our group of grills, of packing a fuel gauge, which is extremely helpful.)
At first glance, I thought the Fuego would win this round, just given how it looks, the simplicity of its design, and its solid construction. But the Weber matches it on all these fronts and won our set-up challenge, which pushes it over the edge.
Winner: Weber Spirit II E-310
The true beauty of a gas grill is coming home from a hard day’s work, firing up the grill, and having a stove-free dinner ready in no time.
For this battle, I wanted to see how long it took each grill to heat up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. But I needed to bring in some tools—namely, a timer and a good thermometer. Each of the grills we tested has a built-in thermometer, and they all worked relatively well. These thermometers, all of which are positioned at the top of the grill lid, measure internal air temperature, which is mainly important if you’re not cooking over direct heat. The thing is, gas grills are not the way to slow-cook or smoke anything. Burning propane for 12 hours—or even just two or three hours—is inefficient and expensive. So while you can slow-cook on a gas grill—or simply cook with indirect heat, using it more like an oven than a grill—it’s just not the best way. The CharBroil Gas2Coal solves this by including pans where you can place charcoal rather than using propane, which is handy. (As none of the other grills include a charcoal-cooking option, I didn’t formally test this feature.)
Where gas grills shine is direct cooking, right over the flame. So rather than rely on the built-in thermometers, I got my hands on some laser thermometers so I could test the temperature of the grates rather than the air, and that’s the measurement I used in this test. (Note: Air temperature rises much slower than the temperature of the grates, all of which are made out of cast iron. So, if you’re doing this test on your own, keep in mind that your grates will hit 500 degrees well before the grill’s onboard thermometer reads that temperature.)
The good news is, all four grills hit 500 degrees in under 10 minutes. But there were significant differences between them. The Broil King was by far the slowest, taking nearly nine minutes for its grates to hit the desired temperature. Next in line was the CharBroil, which clocked in at almost exactly eight minutes. And the Weber was just a hair ahead, with a heat-up time of seven minutes and 40 seconds. That left me with the Fuego, which hit 500 degrees right at the seven-minute mark. (The company claims its grills can reach 500 degrees in five minutes, but I wasn’t able to replicate that speed.)
I’m not entirely sure why the Fuego heats up more quickly than its boxy competition. The one thing that sets it apart is the circular design of its burners, but it’s unclear how much of a difference that makes. Regardless, as you’ll see in the next test, heat-up time is only one part of the good-cooking equation.
Winner: Fuego Professional F24C
If you’ve ever used a gas grill, you know the frustration of having some of your burgers cook so quickly they turn into charred bricks while others remain dangerously pink. This is due to the uneven distribution of heat on the grilling surface. Which is why an even cooking surface is one of the key areas that can set one grill apart from another.
I conducted this test in two ways: the simple way, and the badass high-tech way. The simple way is something you can do cheaply and easily at home. Place pieces of white bread across the entire main surface of your grill and turn on all the burners to their highest setting. After about five minutes, turn off the gas and flip the slices of bread over. You’ll be left with a toasty heat map that shows you where the hot and cold spots are on the grill, indicated by the level of char on the bread.
The bread test works perfectly well. But I wanted something more precise—which is why I busted out the Flir T1K thermal imaging camera. This allowed me to get a clear view of exactly how even each of the grills were (and of course to geek out using a super-cool piece of gadgetry).
While the Fuego won the heat-up battle, it totally biffed the evenness test, with a clear and problematic hotspot in the left side of the grill that made it extremely difficult to properly cook a pile of steaks. The CharBroil was almost as bad, if a bit more predictable in its badness, thanks to an obvious discrepancy in temperature between the back of the grill (which was super hot) and the front of the grill (which was strangely cool).
The Broil King and the Weber performed far better than the other two. Both had reasonably consistent heating surfaces, but the Weber was the most predictable across the surface fo the grill, both in the Flir and bread tests and when I cooked up a pile of meat.
Winner: Weber Spirit II E-310
You’d likely be perfectly happy with any of these four grills. However, the Broil King, which performed relatively well in the heat tests, was simply a monstrous pain in the ass to assemble. And while you can likely buy one of these pre-built from Lowe’s, its overall build quality is clearly inferior to either the Fuego or the Weber, which cost exactly the same. The CharBroil Gas2Coal, although it didn’t win any tests, is a good deal at $430, thanks to its dual-fuel design and the bonus of a side burner, which no other grill in this lineup has. It’s also giant, making it great for large families or big parties.
The Fuego looks great. It’s well-constructed and heats up very quickly—but the hot spots were so bad, at least in the unit I tested, that it’s hard to recommend this grill over any of the others. (It really does look great, though.) That leaves me with the Weber. It’s a gorgeous grill, well-engineered and solidly constructed. It sets up easily and cooks evenly. If you’re in the market for a grill this summer, the Spirit II E-310 is the best bang for your $500.
Winner: Weber Spirit II E-310