M6 Mantra

Any time a brand introduces a fundamentally new technology, it takes a couple of years to learn how to optimize it. After Völkl engineers had a few seasons to tinker with Titanal Frame, testing countless iterations, they found a way not only to perfect the benefits of Titanal Frame, but to magnify its virtues with a couple of complementary components. The marriage of Tailored Titanal Frame with 3D Radius Sidecut and Tailored Carbon Tips created a new benchmark for the genre, that will, in all probability, soon be recognized as one of the greatest all-terrain skis of all time.

The key to Titanal Frame is breaking what is normally a uniform topsheet of metal into three sections. The fore and aft sections of Titanal are shaped like an elongated “U”, with metal concentrated around the perimeter. The alu alloy here is .7mm thick, much thicker than usual, which accentuates the tip and tail’s connection to the snow, somewhat counterintuitive for an all-terrain ski.

The center section, which doesn’t mesh with the tip and tail pieces, is .3mm thick, a brilliant touch as it makes the center of the ski more flexible without losing its damping qualities in the critical underfoot area. This feature matches up perfectly with 3D Radius Sidecut, which we’ll get to in a moment.

New for 2021/22 was Tailored Titanal Frame, that trimmed the width of the front section of Titanal to fit each size. This has the direct effect of making longer lengths noticeably beefier than their shorter kinder. If you’re used to skiing a 184cm, you might consider dropping to a 177cm to maximize the M6’s versatility.

Not content with all the forebody stability delivered by Titanal Frame, Völkl added a delicate braid of carbon fiber to the shovel, part of the ski most other all-terrain models leave floating inertly in space. Völkl made 100’s of iterations of Tailored Carbon Tips, searching for just the right response. The patch of fleece containing the carbon matrix has to be hand-laid into the mold, a level of artisanship that many skiers assume is the exclusive province of luxury brands.

Despite all these embellishments, the $749.99 MSRP for the 2023 M6 Mantra is less than it was two years ago for the M5 Mantra ($825). During a Zoom call prior to the M6 launch, I asked product manager Andreas Mann how it was possible, in an age when many brands strive to cut costs, Volkl ownership allowed R&D to increase their costs, to make a better, rather than a cheaper ski. His reply was the design team had the full confidence and support of upper management. This is what happens when product comes first.

With its ultra-secure snow connection, the M6 behaves like an obese Technical carver, with an on-trail bias despite its off-trail girth. Yet the M6 is only as carve-obsessed as its pilot is: it can drift into a turn as readily as any ski its width and its extremities are modestly rockered. The Mantra M6 fears nothing; it’s the crud that should be afraid of it.

Bonafide 97

The Blizzard Bonafide has been at or near the top of our All-Mountain West rankings since it burst on the scene over a decade ago. While it’s undergone four or five tweaks since its debut, its enduring excellence is due primarily to what hasn’t changed: the original Flipcore construction that removes all stress from the rocker/camber transition. As soon as the ski is pressured, the transition zone disappears and the full length of the ski finds the snow. A Bonafide feels engaged from tip to tail because it is. This is the foundational reason for its sustained success. The Bonafide came out of the chute so well made that the biggest challenge its designers faced was figuring out how to fix something that wasn’t broken.

But sustained stardom always attracts naysayers, so over its relatively long lifespan, the Bonafide has found a few thorns in all the roses thrown its way. One criticism is that its brawny build is best managed by experts, and there’s something to this claim in that the Bonafide 97 performs better with some energy flowing through it, meaning it likes to be ridden fast. Some find it boring and wonder what the big deal is. In the Bonafide’s defense, all high-performance skis perform better under an expert’s guidance and an affinity for speed is not, by itself, a demerit. Furthermore, if you want rebound energy out of a Bonafide, you have to load it. If you just stand there looking cute, it won’t react because you haven’t told it to.

While there are worse problems to have, being known as an experts-only ski is a concern nonetheless, one Blizzard addressed last year with the introduction of the TrueBlend core. The objective of TrueBlend was a smooth, round flex adapted for every size, married to a flex pattern and baseline likewise adapted by length. The key to its execution was the precise location of denser strips of beech in a predominantly poplar core. Each size was treated like its own model, so the shorter skis were also softer and more accessible to lighter and lower skill skiers.

For 2023, Blizzard took another remedial step towards making the Bonafide easier to bow: they made its TrueBlend core a tad thinner. Not much mind you, but enough to make it noticeably easier to bend. Now that it can be loaded up at lower speeds and/or less force application by the skier, the 2023 Bonafide is a more mellow, tractable ride. The Bonafide hasn’t lost its essential character, which I would describe as complete terrain indifference, but it has improved its handling throughout the recreational speed range.

Enforcer 100

While there are no statistics I can point to substantiate my argument, I would contend that the Enforcer 100 is the most powerful model in the All-Mountain West pantheon. It earns this distinction due to an extra-high camber line that begins to load with stored energy from the moment you stand on it. Nordica alleges that the Enforcer 100 surrenders half of its baseline to rocker: 30% in the front and 20% of the rear running surface are pulled off the snow at one of the most aggressive angles in the genre. Yet despite this inherent loss of snow contact, the Enforcer 100 doesn’t ski “loose,” not at all.

One reason the early vintage Enforcer 100’s were so stout is that, due to molding limitations, all sizes used the same baseline. This was one of the major changes introduced just two years ago: each size of the current Enforcer 100 has a unique baseline, sidecut and core profile. This modification is significant as each size will ski a little differently, so think twice before sizing up.

Because the Enforcer 100 was the first member of the now extensive Enforcer family, until last year it was passed over for product improvements that in the meantime became staples for the rest of the series. The two most significant of these both aimed at weight reduction. True Tip extends the wood core deep into the shovel, reducing the amount of heavy ABS needed to stabilize this area. Adding carbon stringers to its top glass laminate reduced the amount of (heavy) fiberglass required by 35%.

Bear in mind, the Energy 2 Titanium Construction continues to use two end-to-end, wall-to-wall sheets of .4mm Titanal around an all-wood core, along with the glass and carbon, so it’s not like its lost any of its athleticism. This is still a very powerful, very live ski.

The biggest change in on-snow comportment between the ancestral Enforcer and the current copy is in the forgiveness and ease of use departments. Not that the old boy has been gutted – far from it. But the new kid seems to transition to its camber zone more smoothly and while it’s still lively off the edge, it’s easier to decamber in its longer lengths. It’s unusually easy to feather the edge or switch from carving to drifting to match the terrain.

MX98

The MX98 is an outlier in the All-Mountain West genre, the only ski in the category that headlines a family of fully cambered carving skis. Its only concession to the requirements of off-trail travel is a long (270mm) front rocker that’s so gradual it’s imperceptible. Given that its classic core of wood (silver fir and poplar), fiberglass and Titanal (.5mm sheets) isn’t particularly lightweight, how can it ski comparably to an armada of competitors with double-rockered baselines and lighter weight constructions?

Well, it doesn’t. It behaves differently from most (not all) of its competition in how well it maintains snow contact. What’s remarkable is how well this translates to the irregularity of off-trail skiing. While the MX98 can float in fresh snow, it’s not bobbing on the top as much as it is trenching through whatever lies ahead, regardless of depth or consistency. Its chassis may be built for carving, but its 98mm girth at the waist allows it to plane sideways – in test-card parlance, to drift – over the most manky crud with a calm that would make the Buddha proud.

When pointed downhill, the MX98 gets the message to giddy-up, hewing close to the fall line. Finishing a short-radius turn on edge isn’t going to happen, but the MX98 can switch from a carve to a drift, and visa versa, in the blink of an eye, so it can always swivel across the hill to brake or change route.

Few conditions are as intimidating as bone-flat light, where all terrain features disappear in a miasma of misty grey. Not that this is anyone’s idea of Nirvana, but it happens, and when it does it would be good to be on the MX98. It exudes confidence, a blessing when the pilot has little of his own. Like the Bonafide 97 and the Mantra M6, the MX98 doesn’t care where you aim it. Its tendency is to stay pinned to the planet, rolling over whatever is presented in its path. While one wouldn’t call it agile, neither is it nervous or indecisive. Whether flat or on edge, it’s a ski you can trust, which is of paramount importance when you can’t see squat.