The frontside of the mountain may not be the most topographically diverse part of the hill, but the skiers who populate are the most polyglot we’ve got. Timid intermediates, cruising seniors, the terrain park contingent, ski school classes, pods of families and lone dive-bombers all crowd into the same space and try to pretend they’re the only ones there. No wonder we refer to the frontside as a zoo without cages.
Appealing to this many constituencies requires all kinds of skis, from relative noodles to absolute rails, most with system bindings and some without, a few built for comfort and a lot built for speed. It’s the largest field we examine and perhaps the trickiest to find the perfect match. The feature all these skis share is a waist that is neither skinny nor fat and a design that expects to be exposed primarily to groomed terrain.
Almost every entry-level ski for the neophyte falls into this family, but there are also a lot of choices for skiers who prefer to fly around at 50 mph. The intended terrain is almost exclusively groomed, but the wider bodies within this family will travel off-slope if asked. Because carving turns is the aspirational activity associated with skiing on groomed trails, this genre is often tagged with the “Carving” label, but we’ve chosen “Frontside” as it’s a more ecumenical term that includes a lot of non-technical skiers in its cadre. It’s also germane to mention that the very best carving skis aren’t necessarily in this compendium as they are invariably on the narrower end of the spectrum, which is not the ski world’s current flavor-of-the-month.
The majority of skis in this genre are sold with an integrated binding that is inextricably married to a specific model. While the binding company is responsible for the binding design, it’s up to the ski maker to assemble the interface that secures it to the ski. The integrity of this linkage varies from brand to brand, but the idea behind the so-called “system ski” does not: the binding sets in or on an interface that adds damping, reduces the binding’s natural impingement on ski flex and increases the skier’s leverage over the edge.
There are countless iterations of Frontside skis not covered here for several reasons:
Note we’re not omitting narrower carvers because we don’t like them; generally speaking, the narrower (68mm – 74mm) Technical models do a better job of digging into an arc than the models the market – that’s you, Dear Reader, and your ilk – have embraced as your preference. Rather we have given them their own proper home among our Realskiers categories, tucked between Non-FIS Race and Frontside.
The best skis in this category are unabashedly skewed to the very skilled skier who lives at a high edge angle. They do not stoop to conquer, with mushy, terrain-conforming baselines that mask a skier’s aptitude for cutting a clean edge. They like their snow hard and the throttle open. Defying both conventional wisdom and our own expectations, top Power models continue also to be among the highest rated for Finesse properties, indicating that it’s possible to make a ski that blazes down the mountain that also feels neck-reining simple to steer. Of course we unearthed a few Power potentates with a more typical disdain for slow, mincing turns, and a small clutch of Finesse favorites designed to boost their pilots’ prowess and self-esteem.
The Frontside category has always been the province of Power skis, a truism that has never been truer. Out of 17 Recommended models, only two averaged a higher Finesse score than Power score. We padded the Finesse population with a couple of plausible candidates, so the other Finesse Favorites wouldn’t feel so all alone.
Of course, there are actually a great many Finesse Frontside skis made for skiers of lower skills and/or lower budget, but these models have a hard time competing against skis with more expensive innards. We also had a couple of 2018 Recommended Finesse skis fall out of favor and another, the stellar Nordica Navigator 80, didn’t garner enough ballots to qualify for what would certainly been another high finish.
If you recognize a lot of familiar faces, it’s because the Frontside genre as a whole was relatively undisturbed by change. Among a large field of Recommended models, only six are new for 2019, and two of those are from Liberty, a brand we’ve never reviewed before.
There are several strata of Frontside skis made for skiers of modest ambition. You won’t find any of them here. These skis are intended for experienced skiers with a full skill set; edge grip at high speed is a paramount virtue. The better the skier, the better the match with the skis identified here. They aren’t trying to teach you how to ski fast on firm snow – they expect you to already know how.
This is where we issue our annual caveat that a great Power ski is often accompanied by inflated Finesse scores, a signal from the testers that they feel the ski has no flaws or limitations. Point being, a high Finesse score doesn’t guarantee that the model will be easy to ski for anyone, only that it feels automatic to a highly adept expert.
No other non-race ski handles speed with such suavity. As one’s aura of invincibility grows with every immaculate turn, so does the temptation to amp up the acceleration. Just what the MX84 was waiting for. It’s fully cambered baseline and classic, wood/metal/glass construction is made to respond to speed. No matter how fast you go, the MX84 seems to have a power reserve that will allow you to go even faster if you have the cajones. Its serenity on edge is unwavering on any snow at any speed, although hard snow and high speeds are its bread and butter. Of course it will make short-radius turns, particularly in its shorter lengths, but it’s like asking American Pharaoh to pull a plow. “For someone with the skills, getting this ski to do what you want is effortless,” sighs Amy from Footloose.
Stöckli never seems satisfied with perfection. No one was complaining that the 2018 Laser AX was unstable or insufficiently smooth or lacking in contact at the top of the turn, but Stöckli found ways to improve the 2019 Laser AX in all areas. The keystone move is a slight widening of the tip and tail called Full Edge Contact that engages the ski the instant it’s tipped. FEC works in concert with tip and tail rocker zones to reduce rocker and increase edge contact whenever the tip is pressured, a feature Stöckli calls Adaptive Contact Length. Another auto-correcting technology is Turtle Shell, S-shaped splits in the top and bottom Titanal sheets that tighten when tensioned by shock and flexion. At slow speeds that don’t induce the same level of vibration, the Turtle Shell Titanal sheets relax so the ski is easier to flex and control. You can’t fool the Stöckli
The Curv GT is a Technical ski that begs to be laid over at a 45o angle, a posture the average skier can’t even accidentally achieve. But for the carving cognoscenti who know how to commit to every turn, The Curv GT is a dream, with a particular talent for short turns with a slingshot finish. “Powerful, wonderfully lively, with great rebound,” writes one tester who gets what the Curv GT is all about. “Go all in and it goes all in with you.” If you need additional motivation to acquire this impeccable carving machine, Fischer has carved $100 off the Curv GT’s MSRP, bringing it down to $999, with binding.
The Head Supershape i.Rally has The Right Stuff. (Farewell, Tom Wolfe, we’ll miss you!) It uses Graphene, carbon in a matrix one atom thick, in the ski center so it can make the core thinner in this area and easier to press into an arc. Any other ski maker in the golden age of Lighter Is Better would pocket the weight savings Graphene allows, but Head instead invested them in adding more Titanal to the mix, giving the i.Rally the stability and intensity of a battering ram. In a cage match with crud or crisp groomage, the contest is over in the first round. The i.Rally is better than whatever snow you throw under its gently rockered tip, and it imbues its pilot with its self-confidence.
Whoever at Völkl came up with the model name “Deacon” deserves some recognition, like a better parking spot perhaps, for applying a moniker that matches the demeanor of the new series. The Deacon 76 moves with a serenity that comes from inner peace, one way to describe the calm that pervades every move the Deacon makes. All the Deacon models (there are four), use 3D.Glass, giving them a deep energy reserve that can be tapped by more aggressive skiing, and Titanal to amplify edge grip. Full sidewalls assure accurate communication with the edge. So the Deacon has all the power a smooth cruiser could ever need, but it doesn’t flaunt it.
The only Frontside ski with a more scalloped sidecut than Head’s Supershape i.Titan is its near twin, the Supershape i.Rally. As their names announce, these skis take the concept of carving on a continuous edge as far as technology will take it. The i.Titan’s trifling concession to contemporary tastes is a soupçon of early rise; otherwise, it’s is designed to hook into a turn early and hang on to the last possible microsecond. The 80mm i.Titan is the widest of the Supershape series, but it doesn’t ski wide. What the skier notices about the fattest shovel in its class isn’t its girth per se, but how it pulls the skier into the turn with the inevitability of a whirlpool. The i.Titan’s turbo-charged tail sends the skier through the turn transition with such energy and accuracy, entry to the next turn is a fait accompli.
If you like your turns short, accurate and effortless, the Nordica GT 80 Ti is your kind of ski. The way it amplifies the skier’s efforts makes a less skilled carver feel like a world-beater and great skier feel like he’s doing nothing at all. Its point guard quicks come in handy in bumps, where it can fit through fall line fissures no wider than a keyhole. The GT 80 Ti’s idea of Nirvana is an endless, undulating white carpet where it can double-rail its relatively short carved turns all day long. The faster it goes, the better it skis, but it doesn’t require high speed to shine.
The Liberty V82 is a carving ski that thinks it’s an all-mountain model. It doesn’t know it’s supposed to be a specialist, laser-focused on maintaining snow contact as it stitches an endless braid of medium-radius turns. Of course it can do that if that’s what you like, consider the box checked, but if that’s all you ask of it, shame on you. No other ski in the category is as open-minded about turn shape. Not only will the V82 make short-radius turns, it will make them to order. It has the same as-you-like-it attitude towards turns medium and long. Whatever the V82 does, it does with distinction. It matches its pilot’s moves as if it were his shadow.
Blizzard raised the performance bar on its top Quattro models, injecting a large dose of carbon into its Frontside flagships. C-Spine Technology consists of two bi-directional carbon layers that work in concert with the Quattro 8.4 Ti’s existing Titanal laminates to improve damping and responsiveness. If the benefits of all that carbon were condensed to a single word it would be “smoothness.” The addition of C-Spine hasn’t altered the Quattro 84 Ti’s groomed snow orientation – its score for Off-Piste Performance remains around a full point below the category norm – but it has made it a mellower, more secure ride within its hard snow domain.
Over the past few seasons Völkl has been extending its 3D.Ridge design to encompass almost all of its RTM, All-Mountain and Big Mountain collections. Last year, Völkl significantly upgraded what is now its signature design with the addition of 3D.Glass. An added base layer of prepreg fiberglass hardly sounds newsworthy, but its impact can scarcely be over-stated. The special sauce in 3D.Glass consists of flaps in its center section that fold up and over the sidewall, interlocking the base with the rest of the 3D.Ridge. For an on-trail ski like the RTM 81, 3D.Glass is transformative. When the RTM 81’s long front and rear rocker blend with the camber zone underfoot as the ski is flexed, the security on edge is first rate.
Atomic’s Vantage X collection is a predominantly Frontside family with its design roots in off-trail technology. The lightweight componentry pilfered from the off-trail Vantage series’ top models are Titanium Backbone 2.0, the main stabilizing element in the base of the Vantage X 83 CTi’s laminate lay-up, and Carbon Tank Mesh, which plays a similar role where it resides just below the ding-repellent topsheet of nano TPU. The Vantage X 83 Ti’s Firewall sidewall is radically sloped at the extremities to reduce swingweight and resist twist, but squared up underfoot for amplified energy transmission. All these elements translate directly to the on-trail objective of an unwavering edge at speed.
The RTM 84 uses Völkl’s signature 3D.Ridge construction, essentially a thin fiberglass shell draped over a central, wood-core plateau. Last year Völkl added a bottom layer of glass that latches onto the top of the sidewall, converting the RTM 84’s laminate construction into a 2-part torsion box. What this tech mumbo-jumbo means is the 2019 RTM 84 is livelier, stronger on edge, holds better on hard snow and is more resistant to getting batted around in sloppy bumps. The edging power and stability at speed that are practically Völkl trademarks are evident in every turn. Its tip and tail are rockered to take out any ruffles in the turn transition, but it’s the cambered area underfoot that gives the RTM 84 its distinctive bite.
No Frontside ski can make the cut as a Power Pick if it can’t cope with speed. This isn’t an issue for the Hero +, which can trace its tech roots back to the Rossi Race Department. That’s where Line Control Technology (LCT) was born, a vertical strip of Titanal (named Power Rail) buffered in an elastic laminate. LCT has big shoes to fill. It’s playing the role usually reserved for twin laminates of Titanal, but with far less mass. A little lighter weight (the Hero + has an all-poplar core) and Prop Tech, which allows the ski to deflect slightly torsionally to preserve edge contact, help this quintessential carver feel quick edge to edge. It’s a gas to make short turns that are as tightly connected as pearls on a choker.
The Head Monster 83 Ti has lived a sheltered existence, at least in the U.S., where it overlapped with the Power Instinct Ti Pro and was overshadowed in its own family by the popular Monster 88. Now is its moment to shine. How the 2019 Monster 83 Ti is built hasn’t changed, but how it’s shaped has. The tip is blunt, rounded, tapered and most of all, wider (by .8cm). The tip taper mellows out Head’s usual fast-twitch turn entry, while the added shape in the forebody enables a tighter turn radius behind the rockered shovel. The Monster 83 Ti is a narrow all-mountain ski that knows how to carve.
The place to look for a Frontside Finesse ski isn’t at the top of the model family, which is almost always occupied by a Power ski, but in the second or third product slot/price point. That’s where last season we stumbled on the Navigator 80, a terrific ski that bows easily and sells for only $399. Alas, we have no new data to support a formal recommendation, so consider this an off-the-record salute to a fine ski and even better value.
As for the skis that made the 2019 Finesse roster, two of the four – the Nordica GT 84 Ti and Elan Amphibio 84 XTI, actually had higher Power scores but are referenced here because they have the effortless quality that is the hallmark of a Finesse ski. The only new model in the mix is the Liberty V76, a honey of a ride that’s so versatile it defies easy categorization.
It only takes 100 yards to realize the Nordica GT 84 is going to be very easy to like. Great skis are like that; they let you know right away you’re in the presence of a faithful friend and ally. Fast technical skiing is similar to those falling-backward trust exercises done at team-building seminars, only performed over and over in rapid succession. On GT 84’s, you know they’re going to catch you every time. Nordica’s GT 84 Ti imparts this sense of all-encompassing security because it doesn’t take every ounce of the skier’s energy to bend it. Its clever core construction depends on prepreg sheets of carbon instead of glass, a weight eliminator on a par with liposuction. Its twin sheets of Titanal are also run through a weight loss regimen, producing a crisscross diamond pattern in the forebody that softens longitudinal flex while retaining a rigid beam when set
The new Liberty V76 resists easy classification. It certainly has the shape to qualify as a pure carver, but lacks the my-way-or-the-highway attitude. It’s also missing its own plate and binding system, passing on the opportunity to add damping and standheight. Its baseline, on the other hand, is pure Frontside, almost fully cambered and made to stay connected with snow. Its average score of 8.63 for the principal Power properties attests to its technical capabilities. The behavior that earned the V76 a succulent 9.0 for Forgiveness/Ease is its large performance envelope and therefore suitability for a considerable slice of the skiing public. It transitions from short, sinuous tracks to medium to long without the slightest indication it prefers one over another.
When it comes to ski design, Salomon is confidently contrarian. It’s been like that since the beginning, when Salomon rocked the ski world with its monocoque shell construction. The French brand’s latest tack against the prevailing wind is a new generation of lightweight skis that uses flax interlaced with carbon stringers to provide the flex resistance and damping roles previously occupied by fiberglass and Titanal. It’s a formulation that works best when all dials are set to Medium: average speed, normal turn radius, modest edge angle and moderately firm snow produce secure turns with a little pep in their step.
The Elan Amphibio 84 XTI is a Power ski conscripted into the ranks of our Finesse Favorites lest its ultra-silky moves be misconstrued as hard to extract. If you can stand up under your own power, you can ski the Amphibio 84 XTI. Any pressure to the inside edge and it’s “Look, Ma, I’m carving!” The Amphibio 84 XTI’s acts like a turn conductor, indicating when to tip, how long to hold the beat and when to snip off the end of each note to make room for the next. The sidecut acts as its metronome, cambered for early contact on the inside edge and subtly rockered on the outside edge. The shape of the top surface reinforces the to-and-fro rhythm, convex in the forebody to accentuate pressure on turn initiation, a concave tail to lubricate release.
The women’s Frontside collection is practically the polar opposite of the men’s. While almost every men’s Recommended Frontside model is a Power ski, the women’s Recommended models are wall-to-wall Finesse skis. The data tells us four of the six Recommended women’s models are Power skis, but data isn’t always conclusive and in this instance is flat-out misleading. There’s no way, for example, that the Black Pearl 78 is a Power ski, and it has the highest Power score in the genre.
Not to pick on the Black Pearl 78, it’s obviously a lovely ski, but it’s a backside ski with a Frontside waist dimension. It should be the anomaly in the field, not the standard bearer. A case could be made that all six of our Recommended models are actually Finesse skis that hold a competent edge with little coaxing. Women who want a stouter carving tool should look either in the Power-obsessed unisex field or among the handful of women’s Technical skis.
The vast majority of women’s Frontside models are made for women of less than expert ability and can’t score high enough to make our Recommended cut. Our small clique of winners have the pizzazz to sustain an advanced skier’s interest yet aren’t so high-geared an athletic intermediate can’t enjoy them. Women who like their turns relatively short and their speed under control will find these fillies responsive to gentle handling.
Women won’t find the unalloyed carving machines that dominate the Power listings on the other side of the gender divide. The women’s Power Picks don’t depend on massive doses of speed to become responsive, nor do they have to ride at a high edge angle to demonstrate their prowess. They’re instantly accessible to skiers of modest skills yet have a performance envelope that extends well into the advanced sphere. Built to latch onto the top of the turn but release it gently, they’re a joy for ladies who are already capable carvers and patient companions for those on the brink of advanced ability.
For a ski that’s rockered at tip and tail, the Black Pearl 78 reaped rave scores for its connection to the top of the turn and its natural facility at short-radius turns. The Black Pearl 78 gets its sneaky quicks from its Flipcore baseline. The secret to Flipcore’s success is that it places no stress on the transition between the slightly elevated tip and tail and the camber zone underfoot. As soon as the ski is tipped, any amount of pressure melds the rockered areas with the middle, creating a continuous edge that doesn’t need any extra oomph to hold, even on groomers. For a ski with a high performance ceiling, the Black Pearl 78 owns the distinction of earning the highest score in the genre for Short-Radius Turns and the second highest for Low-Speed Turning.
As befits a longtime leader in women’s ski design, marketing and sales, K2 makes a slew of Frontside skis for women. The brightest star in this galaxy of models, the new Tough Luv, might be the best women’s Frontside ski K2 has made in years. An unapologetic carver from a brand best known for its off-trail collection, the Tough Luv’s new tip design quietly tucks into the top of the turn and continues on a tight trajectory with an exceptionally stout turn finish.“ This all carbon, no metal ski was great,” confides one of Willi’s Divas. “It’s flexible, it’s fast, and turns well. You can almost tell it was built for a woman.”
Head was the first major brand to jump on board the carving revolution, and it continues to invest a little more shape than the norm in every recreational ski it makes. The Super Joy is the top pure carver in Head’s Joy collection of women’s skis, with a tidy 12.5m sidecut radius that could make slalom turns in its sleep. Unlike the top carvers in the men’s Frontside fold, the Super Joy is almost insanely light. It can weigh almost nothing and still earn better Power scores than most skis in the genre because of its unique carbon, Koroyd and Graphene composition. Three hundred times stronger than steel for its weight, Graphene can be tactically deployed along the ski’s length to modify flex and rigidity, creating all the support lightweight skiers need.
A case could be made that the whole idea of acquiring a modern ski is to make the business of getting from point A to point B as easy and effortless as possible. The skis our test panel has identified have taken this mission to heart. These aren’t limp noodles that lose their zest for living as soon as you stomp on the accelerator; our pair of Finesse Favorites also received more than respectable Power scores. As the skier progresses in ability under their gentle guidance, they have the performance reserve to carry her to the next ability level without breaking stride.
A ski is always more than just its shape, but shape is the main reason the Dynastar Legend W 84 takes top honors for Finesse properties among women’s Frontside skis. Like all the Legends, the W 84 uses a 5-point sidecut that essentially creates a ski within a ski. The widest points at tip and tail are moved closer to the center, so the extremities aren’t connected to the sidecut in the middle that defines turn shape. This allows a ski with a 84mm waist to have a sidecut radius of 12m – less than a World Cup slalom – yet possess the surface area that helps it earn best-in-class marks for Off-Piste Performance.
The Völkl Yumi isn’t meant for the best skiers, but it may be the best ski for anyone hoping to become one of the best. The Yumi isn’t your typical Frontside ski. Völkl has a full line of Frontside system skis (sold with a matching binding) called Flair meant to serve the full spectrum of ladies who prefer on-piste skiing. The Yumi is more like a transition ski where the next anticipated step will be a decisive move off-piste. The Yumi is often a first-time ski purchase but not by a first-time skier. The prospective Yumi skier currently rents her gear, has out-grown a kid’s set-up or has had it with hand-me-downs. The Yumi won’t be just her on-trail, groomer ski; it will be her all-terrain, ski-whatever-is-open ski.