The Difference Between a Moonroof and a Sunroof

mature couple enjoy sunroof in car
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Many people think that the difference between a sunroof and a moonroof is that the former is clear and the latter is tinted, but that's not accurate. Others think a sunroof will open but a moonroof will not, which is still off-base. What's the real difference? 

The basic answer is that a sunroof is any paneled hole in the roof of a vehicle whereas a moonroof is actually a type of sunroof, but it is made of glass or plexiglass to let light in.

For more details, read on.

The Definition of a Sunroof

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. Why? Because, by that definition, even that pop-up vent that lets the stinky air out of the bathroom in your uncle's motorhome could technically be labeled a sunroof.

There are two types of sunroofs, too. An "inbuilt" sunroof is 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. 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. Some would argue that it's not a sunroof but rather a convertible top, albeit a hard, removable convertible top. Of course, there's no single right answer.

Sunroof Popularity

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 consists of a retractable glass panel, is curious in design but has also remained popular through the years.