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Moonroof vs Sunroof - What's the Difference?

By Autolist Staff | September 26, 2018

Originally there were key differences between a moonroof and a sunroof but over the years automakers have blended attributes of the two to the point where the terms are often used interchangeably. A sunroof was a solid metal panel you couldn't see through. You could retract it or take it off your vehicle entirely, opening up the cabin of your vehicle to sunlight and fresh air. Moonroofs, on the other hand, were a solid glass panel you could see through and which would pop up slightly to let fresh air into the cabin.

When open, both a sunroof and a moonroof allow you to enjoy sunlight from overhead and varying amounts of outside air while in your vehicle.

Today, the two setups 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

Automaker and consumer preference for moonroofs over sunroofs have made the 'original' sunroofs fade away. Today the retractable moonroof, confusingly often called a sunroof, dominates. That said, a new setup has become popular, particularly with luxury vehicles: the panoramic moonroof.

This has also coincided with the surge in popularity of crossovers and SUVs since their longer roof sections give more opportunities for a panoramic setup.

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 roofs usually slide open much further than a standard moonroof and they feature a retractable sunshade to keep the cabin cooler when the glass portion is closed.

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 (although a glass sunroof can allow more sun in in the first place).

Origin of the Sunroof

The sunroof was introduced in the U.S. in 1937 by Nash Motors, offering motorists the advantage of fresh air and sunlight overhead without a convertible's drawbacks.

By 1960 Ford attempted to promote the feature -- which was growing in popularity in Europe -- in the U.S. market 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 were falling off. To produce the cars in Ford's Detroit factory, 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 its Cougars, Thunderbirds, and its Lincoln division's Continental Mark III in 1969 and 1970. This time around, the feature's popularity began growing. Cadillac's Coupe deVilles, Sedan deVilles, Fleetwood Broughams, and Fleetwood Eldorados also sported sunroofs during that time. In 1971, several other cars, including the Ford LTD and Buick's Riviera models 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, "When open, you see the Moon and it sees you, but when closed only you have the view."

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.

Whether you're looking for a domestic, imported, new, or pre-owned vehicle, sunroof vs. moonroof options are plentiful. Research, shop, and test drive vehicles until you find the one that's just right for you.

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