What does progress feel like? Relief. Like skiing top to bottom without your inflamed, bruised shins smacking against your boots. If you've ever suffered shin-bang to the point of having to quit a powder day at lunch, rejoice: Ski boots no longer batter your tibias. Since shaped skis turn so willingly, you need not jam your lower legs against incredibly stiff tongues to steer. Mercifully, bootmakers have responded with kinder designs.
Using a new shell construction known as "bi-injection," bootmakers now place the stiff plastic in areas crucial to steering and more pliable varieties elsewhere for comfort. Throw in other developments—custom-fitting liners, funky applications for keeping your feet warm, and designs that finally make slipping on a ski boot easier than squeezing into a pair of Jordache jeans—and there's really no reason why high performance has to come with pain and suffering. See for yourself.
ALPINA CRV 11
Operating under the conviction that weekend warriors end up with boots far too stiff for their needs, Alpina developed the CRV 11 ($445; 603-448-3101). It's adequately performance-oriented with a stiff spine and an adjustment to tilt your lower legs forward into a more aggressive stance. But this is a loving boot, thanks to an especially supple tongue and a cuff pivot that lets your ankle flex. It skis nicely, though high speed is not its forte. A note to Alpina: Reinforce the CRV 11's skimpy boot-top strap.
LANGE L10 ACD
A slightly more supple version of Lange's World Cup race boot, the L10 ACD ($595; 802-655-2431) exemplifies this new paradox of painless performance. Its medium-stiff upper flexes forward easily, and a carbon-fiber reinforcement wraps around the heel, providing lateral support and quick edge-to-edge response. If an invisible compression bump throws you off kilter, you can snap this boot into instant recovery. Best of all, for anyone with a love-hate relationship with Lange, a normal human foot can slip inside this boot: The ACD is 5 percent wider than Lange's race design.
NORDICA GRAND PRIX EXOPOWER R
A pioneer in bi-injection molding, Nordica patented the use of a hard plastic external frame, which is said to channel a skier's energy directly to the ski. Under the frame sits a softer plastic shell that allows easy ingress. The Grand Prix Exopower R ($645; 800-892-2668) also benefits from a liner that incorporates Outlast. This material absorbs excess heat until afternoon shadows hit the slopes; when your foot temperature drops, the stored heat is released back to your toes. Experts only.
ROSSIGNOL FREERIDE XX
Rossignol, on the other hand, puts the stiff skeleton inside. The Freeride XX ($569; 802-863-2511)—and let's give it some props right now for being one of the few boots whose name doesn't read like an IRS form—excels at, well, freeriding. That is to say, it's responsive enough to make quick turns in dicey couloirs yet supple enough to land cornice drops without rattling your fillings. Interestingly, this very balance makes the Freeride XX an excellent choice for more casual skiers too.
SALOMON EVOLUTION2 SERIES
The Evolution2 Series ($535; 800-225-6850) is not meant to climb Olympic podiums. Instead, it ferries its owners into après-ski bars, where they stand in comfort and rave about the great turns they were able to make. Its three densities of plastic strike an optimum balance between stiffness and comfort. A dial on the rear lets you straighten the aggressive angle of the cuff so you can walk or cruise in a relaxed stance, and the foam of the liner molds perfectly to your foot. It's a user-friendly boot without the slop of an intermediate model.
TECNICA TNT ICON CARBON
Not since Barbie made the scene has a chunk of plastic come with such an extensive line of accessories. Racers still need stiffness, so the two flaps that overlap the tongue of the TNT Icon Carbon ($725; 800-258-3897) are rigid. Cruisers can replace them with more flexible versions. Or the tinkerer can keep it stiff on the inside for precise steering and flexible on the outside for comfort. Mix and match! However you dress it, the spirited TNT Icon Carbon will keep you amused from the first chair to the last.
Odd as it may seem, proper-fitting boots are far more important to skiing well than your skis are. So make sure the salesperson sizing up your feet is an actual boot-fitter and not someone paged over from the hunting department. Ask to try three models. To check the fit, stand in the shells without the liners and slide your foot forward until your toes brush the front. You want to be able to slip two fingers between your heel and the shell; much less means you're in for pain, anything more and you'll have no control. Then, with the liner replaced and the boots buckled lightly, stand up to see that your toes nudge the front. When you bend your knees, your toes should pull back from the liner. If after ten minutes you don't feel any pressure points, you're finished trying on boots: Buy 'em.