Sunroof evolution: think car 'skylights'

Soak up the sun or gaze at the moon from the driver's seat - and now the rear seats and cargo compartment

Plenty of people enjoy the summer sun shining down on them when driving home from the office. To keep them happy, a growing number of carmakers are coming up with some interesting new ways to let the light in.

The options in automotive sunroofs are expanding as new car models emerge and glass-lidded versions of existing vehicles roll out. Many of the roofs border on the bizarre: sunroofs that don't open, sunroofs over the back seat - even over the cargo areas of some cars. Others span the whole roof.

"There's an overall trend out there where consumers want to experience more of the elements of life, the outdoors," says Chris Cedergren, president of Iceology, a market research firm in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

In 2002, 23 percent of cars in the US were sold with sunroofs, compared with barely 10 percent in 1992, according to Wardsauto.com.

But in automakers' efforts to expand that market, the forms sunroofs have begun taking range from the sublime to the bizarre.

In one of the most unusual new sunroof applications, Nissan installed nonmoving tinted glass panels that run lengthwise down the roofs of its Maxima luxury sedan and Quest minivan. The idea is to "bring in more sun without letting the elements in," says Scott Vazin, a Nissan spokesman in Los Angeles. "People like their skylights in their kitchens and living rooms - and in their minivans."

The first steel factory sunroof dates to the 1960s, on the Ford Thunderbird, Mr. Cedergren says. But European automakers made them popular. Volvo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, even Volkswagen have offered them in almost every model for the past 40 years. Japanese automakers, and the rest of Detroit, followed suit. And there have always been many variations on sunroofs, from the T-top - where a strip of steel roof separates two pop-out glass panels - to the Targa roof, a big, solid roof panel that lifts off while leaving the rear window in place.

In May, Lisa Whelan, a lawyer in Franklin, Mass., bought a 1997 BMW 318Ti with a "California Top," a giant canvas sunroof that opens across the top of the car, like custom-installed sunroofs from the 1950s and earlier. Ms. Whelan and her husband also drive a Mazda Miata convertible.

"The Miata's fun, but it's always a pain, because you have to lift the top, and latch the latches. With this, you just press a button," she says. "But it feels more like a convertible than a regular sunroof, because it's so big. You can get a real breeze going."

Another sunroof variation is found on the Honda Element SUV. It comes with a flip-up panel that allows light to enter over part of the back seat and the cargo area - a good idea for carrying trees that stand up through the roof, but its not much good for wind in your hair.

Lexus and Mercedes-Benz have been experimenting with folding hardtops for added security and convenience compared with convertibles. But they're expensive, fill most of the trunk when folded, and don't offer the same feel as sunroofs, so drivers experience either an air-conditioned cocoon or full-blast wind.

Today's state-of-the-art sunroof features a tinted glass panel in the front that slides over another fixed glass panel over the rear seat. Inside, sunshades can be used to block the blazing sun, but doing so infringes a bit on headroom. Examples include the "Panorama roof" on Mercedes-Benz C-class coupes, Porsche's recently redefined Targa, and the Mini Cooper's optional sunroof.

Subaru's Outback wagon offers two moonroofs. Technically, moonroofs are sunroofs made of tinted glass. They also often come with a sun shade inside. In Subaru's case, one moonroof only lifts up a crack over the front seats, the other opens fully over the back.

Some of the most notable moonroofs appear on models that otherwise offer a poor view of the road, such as the Honda Element and Nissan Murano.

Sunroofs have always had their critics. Many drivers familiar with early models worry about leaks and a lack of headroom. But even cars as old as 10 years old with sunroofs usually don't leak.

Other critics view sunroofs as too much of a good thing. Paul Kaloostian, a grocery-store owner in Medford, Mass., bought a new BMW 530i with a moonroof this month, but has rarely opened it. "I don't like the sun beating down on me," he says. So he usually closes the sunshade. At night, however, he opens the roof. "The nice cool fresh air is wonderful," he says. "That one time you want it, you want it."

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