If you're crazy enough to discontinue the Explosiv—possibly the best-loved powder ski ever—you'd better get its replacement right. In conceiving the Mantra (130-94-113, $765), Völkl wisely took a page from the Explosiv's playbook: sturdy vertical sidewalls, wood core, two sheets of metal. That gives the Mantra similar power and edge-grip. It's a centimeter wider in the tip, which adds both flotation in powder and a degree of carvability on the hardpack, and a shade softer. Völkl also rounded and turned up the tail slightly. Then it hired a German nihilist graphic designer to paint it black. Shows up nicely in powder, but don't leave them out at night.
Vertical sidewalls: Race-like construction (in a softer flex), with two sheets of metal, gives the Mantra integrity and guts.
Turned-up tail: Not quite a twin-tip, but it releases more easily at the end of an arc, and generally feels more forgiving.
Salomon X Wave 8.0
Gear of the Year tends to reward what's new and innovative, but when something's this good for this long, it deserves a call-out. The X-Wave 8.0 ($600) is an everyman's boot that leads in its category year after year. In 2001, we called it "smooth and responsive. In '02, "solid and unflappable. In '04,"versatile and reliable. This year, "easy and effective. You get the point. The current version has been lightened and refined by the removal of material on the lateral wall, and it's paired with a fuzz-lined women's version called the Rush. As we said in '03, "A lot of people belong in this boot.
Spaceframe shell: Hexagonal perforations soften flex of lateral (little-toe) wall, making inside edge easier to manage.
Adjustable instep buckle: Changes the angle at which the second buckle pulls the shell closed to comfortably accommodate insteps of different heights.
Nordica Hot Rod Nitrous
We said, "It's too narrow for the powder-ski test. Nordica said, "Trust us. Testers said, "Wow. Yes, it was skinnier than the rest of the pigs, but the Nitrous (123-78-108, $975 with binding) more than held its own. That big tip keeps it from diving in deep snow, and its metal-free construction makes it appropriately playful, earning it by far the highest rating for Rebound Energy of any ski we tested. And on soft groomers? No contest, thanks to a deeper sidecut than you'd normally see in a dedicated powder ski. That makes the Nitrous one of the most versatile skis we've tried. It's a gas, and guaranteed to make you laugh.
XBS system: Nordica's interlocking interface helps correct minorfore-aft balance mistakes, directing excess rearward pressure forward and vice versa.
Wood core: Lends snap, while the absence of metal also helps give the ski a lively feel.
Blizzard IQ Binding Interface
If you're not supposed to run with scissors, how safe can it be going 40 mph with two knives clamped to your feet? Who cares? Everything about the IQ interface just makes you want to go faster. It's the most comprehensive fusing of ski and binding yet. And while the reassuring precision and thrilling quickness it delivers seem like an obvious match for high-end race and carving skis, Blizzard also deploys the system on a pair of capable all-mountain rides—the X-Cross Pro (120-70-99, $1,150 with binding) and X-Cross 11 (116-68-99, $1,000 with binding)—that aren't afraid to lighten up and have a little fun. Blizzards can be slightly harder to find, but these are worth the hunt.
Q System: Raised sidewalls on the ski curl inward to grapple the binding, which is shaped and buttressed to increase contact area for greater leverage and quicker power transmission.
Blizzard Binding: Based on proven Marker components and technologies, with a DIN range of 4 to 12.
Rossignol Zenith Z9
What if a ski combined the exhilarating maneuverability of an extra-deep sidecut with the forgiveness and flotation of a wider waist? Rossi's not the first to try. It's just the firsst to get it so completely right. The Zenith Z9 (126-74-105, $1,049 with binding) is, in a word, fun—which is what skiing's supposed to be. It thrives on groomers but doesn't pout on powder days or in spring mush. It loves slalom arcs—as many of them as you've got the energy to make—but even though the maximum length is only 174 cm, its reassuring dampness gives you the confidence to let it run. In short: easy to ski, easy to love.
V.A.S. dampener: Rubbery mass placed on the ski's forebody lends surprising stability in shorter lengths.
Deep-dish sidecut: A 14.8-meter radius(at 170 cm) gives it the quickness of a new-school slalom ski.