The Moonroof Versus Sunroof Question

sunroof with dog
This is an aftermarket sunroof being enjoyed by a great dane. Getty

The difference between a sunroof and a moonroof? A moonroof is actually a type of sunroof, but is made of glass or plexiglass to let light in. A sunroof is any paneled hole in the roof of a vehicle.

I get the question from time to time, and not many seem to know the real answer: "What is the difference between a moonroof and a sunroof?" As with any car-related issue, there are always lots of opinions.

Many think that a sunroof is clear and a moonroof is tinted. Nope, not the right answer. Others think that a sunroof will open but a moonroof will not. Wrong again. While these are all reasonable guesses, you have to go back to the 1970s to get the truth. The moonroof was invented some time in the '70s when a car designer decided to make the panel filling in that hole in the roof out of glass. The truth is that a moonroof is actually a type of sunroof!

So What Exactly Is a Sunroof?

To get a definitive answer, I had to go above my head. According to sunroof expert Marc Levinson of sunroofs.org, the term sunroof is a more general word that describes just about any hole that you can imagine putting in the roof of a vehicle. Even that pop-up vent that lets the stinky air out of the bathroom in your uncle's motor home could technically be labeled a sunroof. There are two types of sunroof, too.

There is an "inbuilt" sunroof, the kind you find on most new vehicles, where the sunroof panel retracts into a space built in between the roof of the car and the headliner, disappearing from view completely. These are usually OEM sunroofs that were installed at the factory. Other sunroofs, which are usually aftermarket (meaning they were installed by a private installer after the car was purchased), can pop up to a tilted position or be completely removable.

Older vehicles may have had canvas retractable sunroofs, like the very fun opening roof found in a Renault 2CV. 

There is some gray area in the definition of a sunroof, too. For instance, is the T-Top on a Corvette considered a sunroof? Technically it should be, considering it's a hole in the roof that can let light and air through. But is it actually a hole in the roof, or is the roof actually just that tiny strip of metal in between the two T-Tops and the holes are actually extensions of the door openings? On top of that, most (but not all) T-Tops are made out of transparent plexiglass, so are they actually moonroofs? What about the Targa top found on older Porsche 911s? This is a huge, removable panel that results in almost the entire roof being open. Is this an exaggerated sunroof? It is, after all, a removable panel that lets light and rain in the car if you have it open. I say no, this is a convertible top at this point, albeit a hard, removable convertible top. We've drifted into minutia at this point, and on a topic that probably doesn't deserve this level of scrutiny. But as car people, these are the things that we like to debate and argue about. We can't help ourselves. 

The sunroof has been a very popular add-on for decades.

Perhaps its popularity can be attributed to the fact that convertibles were so popular, but have traditionally been substantially more expensive than the same vehicle in hardtop form. Car buyers wanted the convertible, but couldn't afford it, so they chose the only other open air option being offered by the car dealer -- a sunroof.  Today, it's more common to see a car with a sunroof than without. There have even been convertibles with built-in sunroof tops! The moonroof, a version of the sunroof that is consists of a retractable glass panel, is curious in design but has remained popular through the years. Hope that helps inform the uninformed and reform the misinformed!