For back-seat stargazers and those seeking the benefits of a convertible without the wind-blown hair, the auto industry is offering a new look.
A growing number of new cars and crossover vehicles are offering broad panoramic glass roofs composed of one or two large panels, opening up the cabin to the heavens and giving motorists the feel of more head room and natural light as they cruise down the highway.
Ford Motor Co. offers the feature on a number of 2008 vehicles, including the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers, and upcoming releases such as the Ford Flex crossover and Lincoln MKS sedan.
General Motors Corp. makes the feature available on the Cadillac SRX along with a power sunroof with companion skylight option on GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave. Toyota Motor Corp. showed it Monday on the 2009 Venza crossover-sedan while consumers can also find it on vehicles such as the Mercedes-Benz R-Class and S-Class.
"It's a feeling of freedom," said Peter Pfeiffer, senior vice president of Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz Design.
Sales breakdowns for vehicles with the glass roof options weren't available but a leading supplier of the glass roofs, Webasto Inc., estimates that the number of panoramic glass sunroofs could more than double to about 700,000 vehicles by 2012.
Andreas Weller, Webasto's vice president of business development, estimated that the option costs about $1,200 to $2,000, providing "almost the benefits of the convertible without the drawbacks."
Sunroofs have long been a popular option for those seeking the open air, but most vehicles have limited the glass to a small space above the front seat. But with the advent of shatter-resistant glass and reinforcements on the roof, the industry has been able to broaden the sunroofs on car-based crossover vehicles and sedans.
The glass roofs typically offer tinted glass and moveable shades to give a darker feel in the vehicle.
"With cars becoming more highly styled and in some ways (having) smaller window-lines, cars are becoming a little claustrophobic in size. So these wide open sunroofs gives you an air of space," said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center.
Ford is making the glass roofs more available, and showed a variant of its popular Mustang sports coupe with a panoramic glass roof at the North American International Auto Show on Sunday.
The panoramic roofs were also displayed on concept vehicles such as the Ford Verve compact and Lincoln MKT crossover.
"It's a production feature that people really enjoy," said Peter Horbury, Ford's executive director of design for the Americas. "There's a lot of people ordering this glass roof. It gives a very nice, different feeling inside the car. But imagine driving throughout the streets of New York? The best view is up."
Indeed, Ford has already used the feature as a marketing tool. In one television ad, a woman gazes at the overhead city skyline in the back seat of an Edge.
Auto safety officials say different reinforcements are used on the roof to make it comparable to a conventional roof and most manufacturers are using tempered glass or laminated glass to prevent it from shattering in an accident.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said he had not come across many complaints about the roofs but said consumers might be susceptible to having some sort of debris hit the roof and cause it to break.
He also warned that the wide area could become a portal in which a motorist could be ejected in a rollover accident.
"I would caution consumers to stay with the old sunroof until manufacturers work this out," Ditlow said.