Can't thank all the contributors to this thread enough and the 184 Mantra was ordered today
I now have my first "quiver" of two. 184 Mantra & 178 Top Fuel
I've never posted this on this board before for fear of the ridicule that would follow, but I believe I state my ability levels pretty close to what they really are.
Having said that, I bought the "expert" Top Fuel and skied it all last season without difficulty.
In the previous 2 seasons (my foray back into skiing regularly after the military keeping me away) I started with a a K2 escape 5500 and skied it without difficulty in Tahoe and a few days back east (broke my collarbone on a jump the last day of the season). Confidence gained I stepped up to the "advanced/expert" K2 Axis XT the next season. I didn't notice any meaningfull difference in either ski. Both ski's were 181 and the escape 5500 was my 1st shaped ski.
Moving on to last season, I went against the grain of the mags/websites and this board and hopped on the Top Fuel while retaining the Axis XT just in case the Top Fuel was too much work or I wasn't worthy.
The Top Fuel was a definate and noticeable upgrade to the K2 as it had MUCH better edge grip and was VERY controlled at (for me) high speeds.
Admittedly I have not demoed any ski's in my entire life and am sure the process is fruitful as I don't think that that many people can be wrong and what better way to make a decision than with 1st hand experience.
It's my belief that I will love the Mantra and furthermore that any solid intermediate who gets in more than 7-10 days a season CAN ski most of the non-race "expert" ski's and ski them well.
Mod's please feel free to delete or start another thread with this post after my mention of the "quiver".