(SKI)--We call it the "value quotient." Each year, after the tests are completed, the numbers crunched and the results in, we take a look at price tags to determine which of the Gold Medal winners in the Buyer's Guide offer outstanding bang for the buck. Without fail, a few overachievers rise to the top, offering exceptional value. Here, we give you three such skis and two such boots, covering a range of skier types (for a refresher on skier-type definitions, see the September issue or go to skimag.com).
If you're shocked by the high price of skiing, you're not alone. But consider this: Adjusted for inflation, today's gear is actually no more expensive than it was back in the "glory days" of the sport, though it is certainly better. And don't let the prices that appear here get you down. They are the manufacturers' suggested retail prices, and very few stores will charge you full price, especially after Christmas. Expect to pay 5 to 25 percent less than what's listed here, depending on where and when you buy. (Note: Ski reviews include tip-waist-tail widths in millimeters and the available range of lengths in centimeters.)
K2 Escape 5500
$500, 160-188 cm, 107-68-97
Player, All-Mountain Cruiser
Any ski K2 has applied the 5500 moniker to had better be as good as the vaunted original. Actually, the new Escape 5500 is better. The biggest difference, of course, is modern sidecut. But K2 also tosses in its best triaxially braided torsion-box construction, plus its Mod vibration- dampening module. The result: a lightweight, lively and surprisingly muscular ski. But here's the best part: You'll probably find it for less than $400.
Rossignol T-Power Viper S
$569, 140-174 cm, 103-65-93
Player, All-Mountain Expert/Cruiser
With Rossi's amazing little Viper S, you don't get a lot of ski for your money. And that's the point. What you do get is a shocking amount of stability and edge-grip, along with all the quickness and agility you'd expect from a shortie (Rossi was the first to build a recreational skier's version of the new diminutive slalom race skis). In short: pure pluck. It's not our cheapest value pick; but certainly the highest-performing.
Völkl Carver V3 20/20 energY
$500, 156-184 cm, 105-65-93
Women's All-Mountain Expert, All-Mountain Cruiser
Sometimes it's hard to pick the best value among great skis. But sometimes a ski that tops its test category also happens to be the least expensive. Such is the case of the Carver V3 20/20, which wowed our testers with its smoothness and versatility. "20/20" means it's 20 percent lighter and softer-flexing than the men's version. But make no mistake: It's got the oomph to keep the most demanding woman happy.
Head WC TR Heatfit
All-Mountain Expert, Freerider
If you were a relatively new brand going after the big boys, you'd take your best shot with a no-nonsense performance boot that is priced to turn heads. The TR not only tested well in the expert categories, it also bore the lowest suggested retail price. And that's not for lack of features: It's fully adjustable, and the hardware is slick. One note of caution: The TR is built on Head's narrowest last (wide feet need not apply). But if it fits, buy it.
Aspiring Carver, Player, All-Mountain Cruiser
For some, the stunning ease of entry and exit would be enough to make the F7.2 a good choice. But there's much more to it: Ultra-adjustable buckles and the use of soft plastics in the key wrapping zones give it an uncanny ability to snugly and comfortably envelop almost any foot; a ski-walk device for convenience; and tasteful styling. In terms of performance, it's enough boot for all but the expert skier. And the clincher: its exceptional price.