A sunroof can make even the most compact, cheap and dull car feel open and airy. Who could be down when letting in the sun’s rays and all that great blue sky through your roof? What might throw you for a loop is the choice of moonroof vs. sunroof. Let’s walk through the differences.
Moonroof vs. sunroof
Many car owners and potential customers use sunroof or moonroof interchangeably, and there isn’t a used car salesman on Earth who is going to correct them. While we all don’t need to be etymologists, this lack of correction led to our muddled confusion of the terms today.
What is a sunroof?
Technically speaking, a sunroof is a completely opaque metal panel that slides to reveal open sky. When closed, you can’t see through it and no light gets in. When open, there is no protection from the weather.
The earliest sunroofs weren’t what we think of as a sunroof today. The first automobiles didn’t have sunroofs. Actually, they didn’t have roofs. Most early cars were what we would recognize as roadsters or permanent convertibles, lacking any kind of roof. The metal roof first appeared on the 1906 Cadillac Model H. A sliding metal roof panel, basically the world’s first sunroof, didn’t even appear until 1933.
Much like the convertibles of the time, the roof panel was manually operated instead of powered and eventually leaked. This metal panel was the standard sunroof design for a number of decades until that other type of roof showed up to confuse the terminology.
What is a moonroof?
The moonroof is a comparatively new design, around 50 years old when stacked against a sunroof’s century-long history. The 1973 Lincoln Mark IV debuted a new type of sunroof that featured a tinted glass top in place of the metal plate. This is the difference between sunroof and moonroof—there is the same open-air convenience when desired, but the glass allows a view even when the moonroof is closed. The moonroof is a window; the sunroof is a door.
While this revised design provided a similar function for the car occupants, advertisers created the term “moonroof” for this new type of sunroof. Because of the ability to let additional light into the cabin while keeping out wind, rain or cold temperatures, the moonroof design eventually replaced the traditional metal sunroof design. However, car buyers were so used to the old term that it stuck, and today’s manufacturers and retailers list the sunroof and moonroof available, though technically only the moonroof is still around.
Sunroof or moonroof—does it matter?
When shopping modern vehicles, or anything built in the last couple of decades, the wording is irrelevant. You can say either sunroof or moonroof to any sales staff member and they will understand exactly what you mean, even if their brand uses the other wording. Both terms are now synonymous for an opening roof panel. You can even have either design installed after your vehicle leaves the factory, but this isn’t a cheap addition for your car. However, you have several options when shopping moonroofs in new vehicles.
Types of sunroofs and moonroofs
Although the different names mean the same thing today, there are a few different types of moonroofs available on the market. These types of moonroofs come with extra features. Here’s a glimpse of what to look out for.
Among the earliest designs, folding sunroofs allowed a metal body structure, with the open-air experience of very early cars. A simple folding fabric top covered a large open space in the roof. The driver or passengers could manually roll back the rag top, similar to the first convertibles. This design was popular in Europe for several decades, even on affordable cars like the Citroën 2CV and Volkswagen Beetle.
- With a simple manual design, you’re only seconds away from an open-top experience.
- A unique design in modern times, the folding sunroof catches some looks.
- The lack of soundproofing can make for a noisier ride.
- Like a convertible top, fabric ages quickly when left outside all the time.
Where to find folding sunroofs
As a classic design, a folding sunroof is limited to a few vehicles with a traditional ragtop or similar driving history. Your best bets today are the final generation Volkswagen Beetle and second generation Jeep Liberty.
Built-in moonroofs are what you probably know as the standard moonroof. It’s electric-powered with a variety of settings. You can pop up the rear for ventilation, slide the glass panel all the way back into the roof structure or sometimes even fully remove the panel for maximum open-air cruising.
· A standard-sized moonroof with reliable mechanical operation
· Great view, nice ventilation, can keep it closed to keep elements out
· Small additional cost when new
· Slightly reduced interior headroom to accommodate mechanism
· Some maintenance required as the vehicle ages
Where to find built-in moonroofs
Standard built-in moonroofs can be found on many vehicles in nearly all classes, including:
· Compact cars: Acura ILX, Honda Civic
· Sedans: Mazda 6, Porsche Panamera
· SUV/crossovers: Buick Encore, Honda CR-V
· Trucks: Chevrolet Silverado
A spoiler moonroof is easily identified by the look that mimics the rear wing found on sports sedans and sports cars. Instead of sliding back into the roof like the built-in version, the spoiler moonroof pops up, then slides back, staying above the roof. It’s angled down at the front for aerodynamics, which gave it the spoiler name.
· An affordable moonroof with reliable operation
· Great view, nice ventilation, can keep it closed to keep elements out
· Not as clean of a look compared to built-in moonroof
· Sunroof opening is not as large as built-in because the panel cannot slide back all the way
Where to find spoiler moonroofs
The spoiler moonroof is somewhat rare today. Classic examples include the Honda CR-X, Toyota Celica and, more recently, the Chevrolet Malibu.
A pop-up moonroof does what you think, with the rear popping up above the roof and allowing air in and out of the vehicle. A sliding sunshade blocks out unwanted light when needed. This is a simple, manual pop-up design not found in today’s vehicles.
· Affordable when new
· Provides a simple and effective way to view the sky and ventilate the cabin
· Sliding shade mimics the headliner when you don’t want extra heat inside
· Because of the age, the drain holes and tubes become clogged, allowing rain into the car—this is annoying and can cause hidden rust issues.
Where to find pop-up sunroofs:
Like the spoiler moonroof, the pop-up moonroof is an older design found mainly on 1980s and 1990s cars, from the Ford Mustang and Toyota Supra to the Honda Civic and BMW 3-Series.
This is a multipanel, segmented sunroof design. As the sunroof opens, the panels slide back, creating a stacked look at the rear of the moonroof opening.
· Large unobstructed view once open
· Expensive option when new
· Appearance when closed resembles a roll-up garage door
· Owners report numerous maintenance issues with the unusual design
Where to find lamella sunroofs
· Mercedes-Benz ML-Class
· Pontiac G6
The panoramic moonroof is a sunroof that shops at the big and tall store. It’s an extra-long moonroof, sometimes running nearly the length of the vehicle’s roof, giving a nearly convertible-like feel of open-air driving. While some are fixed, others offer power open/close.
· With huge open views, extra sunlight can improve your mood.
· Although available on affordable cars, panoramic roofs are a luxury option that deliver a high-end feel.
· Because many buyers appreciate the feature, a moonroof adds to your resale value.
· Just as a huge, sloped windshield is a pain to clean, so is an enormous glass roof
· More glass means more sun rays coming in, making the car hotter
· Some panoramic moonroofs are a fixed-panel design and don’t open
Where to find panoramic moonroofs:
· Compact cars: Hyundai Veloster, MINI Cooper two-door, Volkswagen Golf
· Sedans: Genesis G80, Kia Optima, Toyota Camry
· Crossovers & SUVs: Nissan Murano, Subaru Forester, Tesla Model X
· Trucks: Ford F-150, Ram 1500
Moonroof vs. sunroof: the bottom line
For the last few decades, moonroof equaled sunroof. Historically, there was a difference, but today the terms are interchangeable. Check out a panoramic moonroof if you want maximum sunlight, but any version adds an upscale feel.