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Moonroof vs Sunroof - What's the Difference?

By Autolist Editorial | June 23, 2021

When it comes to moonroofs and sunroofs, the difference is indiscernible, at least on new cars. But it wasn't always like that.

Originally there were crucial differences between a moonroof and a sunroof. Still, automakers have blended the two attributes over the years to the point where the terms are often used interchangeably in dealership marketing spin. That holds across most manufacturers, from Toyota, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz to Chevrolet, BMW, and Honda.

Originally a sunroof was a solid metal panel you couldn't see through. However, you could retract it, and it was removable, so you could take it off your vehicle entirely to open up the vehicle's cabin to sunlight and fresh air.

Moonroofs originally were a solid glass panel you could see through and which would pop up slightly to let fresh air into the cabin.

When open, either a sunroof and a moonroof allows sunlight from overhead and outside air while in your vehicle.

Today, the type of sunroof in a car matters little, as both have evolved to be nearly identical in new vehicles. Sunroofs now have a glass panel that retracts or pops up and a sunshade you can use to block sunlight if desired. Moonroofs also have these features though sometimes they're larger than sunroofs.

Panoramic Sunroofs vs. Moonroofs

As automakers and consumers began to prefer moonroofs over sunroofs, making the latter nearly obsolete, a new setup has become popular, particularly with vehicles: the panoramic moonroof. That has also coincided with the surge in popularity of crossovers and SUVs. Their larger and longer roof designs allow for more opportunities for different designs for a glass or transparent roof panel.

Panoramic roofs are generally moonroofs with large glass panels extending from just above the front passengers to well behind the second row of seats. Some have a structural brace running across the roof for crash protection, while other automakers build the necessary protections into the vehicle's frame without interfering with the large opening.

Panoramic roof systems usually feature roofs that slide open much further than a standard moonroof. In addition, they typically feature a retractable sunshade to keep the cabin cooler when the glass portion is closed.

The benefits of this feature include an open feel and the elegant look of a large section of tinted glass. Buyers also appreciate the ability to cool down the vehicle quickly on hot days by opening the roof, allowing interior heat to escape — even though a large glass panel is just inviting sunlight to enter the cabin in the first place.

Origin of the Sunroof

Later dubbed a sunroof, the glass roof was introduced in the U.S. in 1937 by Nash Motors. It offered a vehicle's passengers the advantage of fresh air and sunlight overhead without a convertible's drawbacks.

By 1960 Ford Motor Company attempted to promote the feature, which was growing in popularity in Europe, in the U.S. market as an available option on its Thunderbird model, but the effort fell flat.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ford tried again, promoting and mass-producing cars with sunroofs as its convertible sales fell off. To produce the vehicles equipped with the feature in Ford's factories, the company partnered with American Sunroof Corporation, which was also in Detroit. The company's owner had learned the craft of installing German-imported Golde sunroof kits in cars years before.

Ford offered factory-installed power sunroofs on Mercury Cougars, Ford Thunderbirds, and the Continental Mark III in 1969 and 1970. This time, the feature's popularity began growing. At General Motors, Cadillac's Coupe de Villes, Sedan de Villes, Fleetwood Broughams, and Fleetwood Eldorados also sported sunroofs during that time. In 1971, several other cars, including the Ford LTD and Buick Riviera, added sunroofs.

Origin of the Moonroof

Golde GmbH created the world's first slide-and-tilt sunroof module in 1973. The same year, the Lincoln Continental Mark IV went public with a new version of the power sunroof, called a Moonroof, a term coined by Ford marketing manager John Atkinson. When it introduced the Continental's newly designed tempered glass panel, the company said of its power moonroof, "When open, you see the moon, and it sees you, but when closed only you have the view."

In a bid to minimize heat and glare from the sun, the Lincoln moonroof featured tinted glass. Occupants could keep the silver-tinted glass panel closed, but they could open a sliding sunshade that let in light.

Pros and Cons of Sunroofs and Moonroofs

There are some compelling reasons to be in the camp for or against sunroofs and moonroofs, and weighing these against one another can help you decide if you should purchase a vehicle with or without one.

On the plus side, sunroofs and moonroofs provide the rush of open-air air driving but with a fixed roof and give you the ability to let light and air in with the flick of your wrist. The occupants of the vehicle feel less enclosed, which can be fabulous on a sunny summer day. There is also less noise to contend with when opening the sunroof or moonroof than rolling down the car's windows. That makes getting fresh air even more pleasant.

On the other hand, sunroofs and moonroofs have a few notable pitfalls. Installed in the roof of a car, this type of window can reduce headroom which can be important to taller drivers and passengers. In addition, the effects of exterior temperatures on the vehicle are more dramatic than with an enclosed design. It may be slightly cooler in winter and hotter in summer due to the materials used to make the sunroof or moonroof. Additionally, there is always the risk of the sunroof or moonroof leaking. This complaint is common among owners of vehicles with this type of roof due to the rubberized seal around the panel deteriorating with time.

Whichever type of vehicle you're looking at, sunroof and moonroof options are plentiful and typically available on even basic trim levels and in new and used vehicles. Research, shop, and test drive vehicles until you find the one that's just right for you.