If you are a contractor with a work truck that sees a lot of construction site mud and very little of car wash water, you are probably best off with a steel mesh grille running board. It can be used to scrape off most of the dirt from your shoes when you step up to drive away. It won't do much for the aesthetic appearance of the truck, but it will make it more convenient and safe to use. If you own a limousine service and want to install running boards that provide an extra touch of luxury, comfort and style for your SUV limousine, you should go for a custom fit molded running board with integrated lights. However, not all choices are that clear, and there is an array of both universal and custom fit running boards to choose from.
The first choice is between the bar/step type and the true running boards. As always, the best choice is a choice that is based on the way you use the vehicle, and on your personal preferences. Some basic facts can make your personal choice easier:
If you have bought your truck/SUV because you wanted the high ground clearance, this should also be considered when you look for side steps and running boards. As the whole point of mounting side steps is to get a step that is at a convenient height over the ground, a ground clearance priority rules out most side bars, side steps and running boards. The only steps and running boards that provide both a convenient step position and preserved ground clearance are the fold-down steps/side bars and the retractable running boards that come out when you open the doors and retract when you close them.
If you are not doing much of really rough off-road driving, fixed position side steps or running boards are probably a better choice. The next step (no pun intended) is to ask yourself if convenience and ease of use is more important than style. If your vehicle is fairly low to the ground, and you just want the side steps as a styling accent, maybe you look at Sport Tubes. They can give that accent without being in the way. They attach to body panels and are not made to step on at all.
Side steps and running boards that do not provide a wide enough stepping area, and that mounted are so close to the vehicle body that it feels tempting not to use them, cause more trouble than they are useful. It must feel natural to use the step, or people will try to get in over the running board or side bar. Not only will they have to take a bigger step to get in, they will also get their legs or pants dirty on the side of the accessory step. If you feel that your vehicle gets too wide with a fixed step in a convenient stepping position, you should probably consider mounting fold-down steps or automatic retractable running boards. Another aspect to consider, is if you want the steps not only for convenience of entry and exit, while also making it easier to keep your vehicle nice and clean. Molded custom fit running boards provide convenient entry and exit to your vehicle, and protect the body sides from road spray. Especially if they are integrated with mud flaps. The more exclusive models of molded custom fit running boards can also be color matched to the vehicle body, making them look as an integral part of the vehicle.
The perhaps most important part of the side steps is often overlooked. Or not seen at all. That is the mounting brackets.The mounting brackets must be of good quality, and preferably made in non-corrosive material. Side step mounting brackets are exposed to all kinds of hardships, constantly blasted with road debris, salt spray and whatnot. In spite of all hardships they have to remain strong. Even if you don't weigh much yourself, your passengers might. Most side steps and running boards can take a weight of 300 lbs. Some as much as 500 lbs. That structural strength must be kept intact over the years or the sidesteps become a safety liability. For the side steps/running boards to feel comfortable, the mounting brackets must be stiff and not give the step a spongy feel. So look for steps and running boards that not only look good themselves, but also are mounted on high quality brackets. All too often, rusted out running boards and side steps detract from the appearance of an otherwise impeccable truck or SUV. No other part of a vehicle is subject to the kind of abuse side steps and running boards have to endure. Therefore high quality and corrosion resistance are extremely important features in side steps and running boards. Stainless steel, aluminum and ABS plastic are good choices of material. Mild steel should be avoided if you are concerned about the appearance and second-hand value of your vehicle. While the mild steel might be good enough in very dry climates, it is not good enough where you have lots of rain and snowy winters. On the other hand, with the lower price of mild steel you can of course get new running boards when the old rust out. Just be prepared, and realize that only high quality running boards and side bars will look good after a couple of years of use.