A glass roof in a vehicle can brighten an otherwise dark interior. It’s a welcome add-on in an age where high belt lines and thick pillars have made large expanses of side glass uncommon. 

Buyers seem to agree, with a sunroof or a moonroof becoming a common feature on most modern vehicles. The terms sunroof and moonroof are often used interchangeably, but, technically, there are differences between the moonroof and the sunroof. What are these differences and which option is best for you? We have the answers.

The Sunroof

The sunroof is probably the most common term for any opaque panel that lets light in through the roof. Yet the reality is that a sunroof doesn’t have to be a pane of glass at all. To be a sunroof it can either be a glass or metal panel that will tilt, partially retract, or fully open. If it’s a large tinted glass panel that can fully retract into the roof, it’s actually a moonroof.

In the old days, sunroofs were small little slits of glass in the roof that were installed by the aftermarket and would have to be manually cranked open. Presently, not only is the glass area of sunroofs larger than ever, but there are multiple ways to enjoy them. Here’s a quick rundown on the different types of sunroofs:

Pop-up sunroof: This is a manually-operated panel that tilts upward but doesn’t retract. You manually prop it up and lock into a tilt position. It’s like a vent window for your roof.

Spoiler sunroof: The spoiler is electronically operated and partially slides backward on top of the roof of a car, rather than retracting into the crevice between the roof and the headliner. If you see a car with an open spoiler sunroof, you’ll see a pane of glass jutting up into the air over the roof of the car.

Top-mount sunroof: This power sunroof style is similar to the spoiler sunroof but opens completely. When it is open the roof panel slides back onto the roof of the car.

Inbuilt sunroof: this is the style most similar to a moonroof. The inbuilt sunroof is a glass sunroof where the panel can fully slide back into the roof above the headliner. In older cars it may be slid back by a manual crank, but new cars will be electrically operated.

The Moonroof

While the sunroof is a metal or glass piece that tilts, retracts, or both, the power moonroof is exclusively a tinted glass panel. It may be fixed or it may operate like an inbuilt sunroof that retracts fully into the roof. The moonroof will have a sunshade that may either be manually or electrically operated and can be closed to shut out the sun. Moonroofs typically provide better airflow than a sunroof

Automakers these days are more enamored with the moonroof than the sunroof. Entry-level brands like Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, and Honda all offer moonroofs on many of their models. Luxury brands like Acura, BMW, Cadillac, and Lexus are also marketing power moonroofs as well. The moonroof is often found on higher trims, like the Honda Civic, which adds the moonroof to the EX trim and above. 

Panoramic Roof Systems

As moonroofs have surpassed sunroofs in popularity in today’s modern vehicles, the panoramic roof has emerged as a third type of roof system

The panoramic roof features two large glass panels that together stretch over the front two rows of seats to let light into the car’s cabin. The front panel acts as a top-mount sunroof, with all the tilt and slide functions of that type of sunroof design. The back panel is a panoramic moonroof. It is a large fixed piece of tinted glass that rear passengers can look out of but can’t open. These types of roofs most often have a power sunshade as well. Because this roof system combines the attributes of both a sunroof and a moonroof, it can be referred to as a panoramic sunroof or a panoramic moonroof. 

The popularity of crossovers and SUVs has led to the emergence of panoramic roof systems, which are made possible by the longer roofs found on these bodystyles. Panoramic roof systems are commonly found on a vehicle’s higher trim levels, but they can often be added on to lower trims. Panoramic roofs are found on many mainstream and luxury vehicles including the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the Hyundai Sonata, the Toyota Camry, and the Jeep Cherokee, to name a few.

Things to Watch Out For

If you’re looking to buy a used car or SUV with any type of sunroof or moonroof , especially an older used car , be sure to look for any sign of leaking in the interior. This is particularly true with an aftermarket unit. It’s not common for a factory-installed sunroof or moonroof to leak, but one installed by a third party might not be so waterproof. 

When you’re inspecting used vehicles with a sunroof at the dealership, just take a look around the seals by the sunroof to ensure they’re moisture-free and in good condition. Also, try to open and close the sunroof to make sure it works. Do this before or after the test drive, not during, so you’re not distracted.

Finally, don’t discount the potential cost of repairs with any of these designs. Motors can fail, drains can clog, the glass can jam on its tracks. All this can be expensive to service and fix.

The Bottom Line

In the United States sunroofs have largely fallen out of favor for moonroofs , while the larger panoramic roof has surged in popularity in recent years . It’s easy to see why this is the case: it blends the best of both worlds. It offers plenty of natural light, it can let in fresh air , and it indulges rear passengers as well as those up front. If you’re buying a new vehicle that offers a panoramic roof , it’s well worth considering, especially in an otherwise closed-up car like a coupe .

More from iSeeCars:

If you’re in the market for a new or new to you car,  you can search over 4 million new and used cars with iSeeCars’ award-winning car search engine that helps shoppers find the best car deals by providing key insights and valuable resources, like the iSeeCars VIN check report. You can even search for cars that have moonroofs or sunroofs .