By NEIL PARMAR
The sunroof is rising again, and this time the views are bigger than ever.
Nearly 33% of new vehicles sold or made available in the market last year featured a sunroof—a fourfold jump since 1990, according to analyst firm WardsAuto. And a recent poll by Harris Interactive found that 40% of new-car buyers said their next vehicle purchase would likely include a panoramic sunroof.
With Americans now holding on to their vehicles, on average, for nearly six years—an all-time high—buyers are loading up even economy-class cars with luxury-type options, automotive analysts say. Sunroofs, once available mostly on high-end cars, nowcome on vehicles across the price spectrum: The subcompact Chevy Sonic (starting price: $14,185) features a 15.25-inch by 32-inch sunroof, while the Jaguar XJ, priced more than five times higher, has one measuring 50 inches by 45 inches.
"Now you can get them in almost everything," says Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. That includes most vehicles in the budget-minded Kia brand, for example, and muscle cars such as the Ford Mustang (complete with SPF 50-equivalent tinting). Some even come as standard equipment.
The terms "sunroof" and "moonroof" are often used interchangeably, but industry experts say a sunroof is a broader term that refers to any roof opening, including one with a retractable metal panel. The moonroof, a subtype of the sunroof that is made of all glass, has overtaken the sunroof in popularity.
Car shoppers are drawn to the bright, spacious feel of so-called panoramic moonroofs, which is driving growth in this sector. Many of these feature one large glass pane, or multiple panes, spanning the width of the front row, and sometimes the rear seats as well. Often, one dark-glass sheet spans the roof above those inside panes, giving the impression of a vast skylight that runs from front to rear windshield.
These days, "they're taking up a lot more surface area of the roof," says Ivan Drury, senior analyst with automotive website Edmunds.com. The Ford Flex SEL looks like Swiss cheese from above, with four glass-covered holes over three rows of seats. Lincoln says the 15.2-square-foot glass roof on its MKZ is longer than any other sedan's.
Car makers market them with a multitude of names: Ford advertises its "multipanel vista roof," while Audi pushes its "dual-pane open sky roof system"—with a wind deflector to minimize noise. The Mercedes-Benz sunroof, which lets drivers darken or lighten the glass at the press of a button, is dubbed "magic sky control."
There are other new design twists. Cadillac boasts online that "ingenious technology" in its SRX crossover can automatically adjust the volume on its surround-sound audio system whenever its panoramic roof opens or closes. And the single pane of glass that extends over Lincoln's MKZ slips up and over its rear windshield with a flair of showmanship.
While some cars like the 2013 Jaguar XJ and Scion tC come loaded with the panoramic roof as standard equipment, others include it as an option for $420 to $1,850, according to Edmunds data for 2012 models.
Sunroofs have raised safety concerns over rollover strength and instances of glass shattering spontaneously, typically when cars are moving at highway speeds. (Web forums are rife with complaints about glass shattering.) Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrationbegan investigating consumer incidents involving the panoramic roof on Hyundai's Veloster. (A spokesman for Hyundai says the company has received just a "small number of complaints.")
Auto makers say consumer interest in sunroofs was rekindled after the industry began addressing older complaints such as ill-fitting models that leaked rain on drivers or let in loud, whistling wind noise. Also, most now equip their vehicles with tinted or UV-reflective glass, and either manual or power sunshades, to avoid unwanted heat or sunlight.
Glass prices and production costs have also decreased over the past five years. "The actual material cost is fairly low," says Steve Kosowski, manager of long-range strategy and planning at Kia. "It's one of the most profitable features in the industry." At Webasto, one of the world's biggest sunroof suppliers with its headquarters in Munich, sales to auto makers in North America have increased 17% since 2008.
All it took to grab Anita Travis Richter's attention when she was buying a new car was a customer review on Edmunds.com about a panoramic roof in the Volkswagen Jetta TDI. Ever since the Kentucky-based magazine editor purchased a Jetta wagon last year, a favorite pastime has been pulling over and skygazing with her 7-year-old daughter from the comfort of their car. (They recently spotted an old bomber plane and a couple of hot air balloons descending slowly to the ground.) Sometimes, she says, they just stare at stars under a moonlit sky."It's like having a convertible," she says.
But car makers acknowledge that all that glass on top presents design challenges. "You have more weight higher up and that changes the center of gravity," says Kosowski. "That must be engineered to meet stricter safety standards on roof crush."
That is easier said than done. Volkswagen has recalled more than 13,100 of its 2012 Audi Q5 crossovers because some of their front sunroof glass panels may be susceptible to breaking in extremely cold temperature. A spokesman for Audi says the company is "taking every step to resolve this for owners." And Webasto in North America has voluntarily recalled more than 283,900 sunroofs after it discovered the glass panel of some aftermarket models might completely separate from its metal frame. Webasto says it took "took immediate steps to keep people safe" by notifying vehicle owners of the need to replace the glass panels.
Car industry analysts also warn that the weight of a sunroof can eat into fuel efficiency, shaving up to two miles per gallon. But, says Gutierrez, most consumers are willing to pay the premium. Ms. Travis Richter, for one, says she gladly paid the extra cost, whichshe calculates as some 34 cents a day over the vehicle's lifetime.
"We had a sunroof on our last two vans, although [we] never really used it," she says. "But this is an entire roof that is open to the world."
Write to Neil Parmar at firstname.lastname@example.org