Over the years, I’ve owned a couple of different cars with mechanisms for opening up the top and catching a little fresh air, and I have to say it’s one of my favorite things you can get a car to do. I’ve had a Saab convertible for years, and I don’t even care that where I live, I can only open it about ten days a year. I gladly accept the reduced forward visibility (because of the heavy frame around the windshield) and the nearly nonexistent rearward visibility (because the back window is about the size of a comic book), the increased road noise, and having to do that little windows-open-a-bit-and-shut-again thing to make them fully seal against the weather strips just for that magical first day in late spring when the time has come to undo the latches and wind back the lid. There are even some facets of the top-up experience I actually like – the sound of a heavy rain, for instance. And, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t cold in winter or drafty anytime. The Swedes know how to build for foul weather.
When I was younger, I had a T-top Camaro. This was a whole different animal. The tops were heavy, taking them off and putting them on was a pain in the ass, they took up the whole damn trunk (not that a Camaro has much of one, admittedly) when stowed, they started leaking about half an hour after we took delivery, it was drafty and cold, and there was the ever-present terror that you’d manage to very expensively break one while putting them on or taking them off (though, fortunately, I never did). To add insult to injury, it didn’t really feel much different with them off. Oh, sure, you had the open space where the bit you’d normally hit your head on getting into the car should’ve been, and that was nice, but on the road it was just noisier. With the same view through the rearview mirror either way, there just wasn’t any particular feeling of… liberation.
Put simply, the convertible is worth it; the T-top wasn’t.
Through all that time, though, I never had a car with a moonroof. I didn’t even know anyone whose car had a moonroof for most of that time. (I should, perhaps, explain that by “moonroof” I mean a panel in the roof that opens, so that you could, if pressed, use it as an emergency exit. This is as opposed to a sunroof, which is just a fixed transparent panel in the roof that maybe pops up a little for ventilation, maybe does nothing at all.) I’d seen them, of course, but I never really saw the point. It looked, for all intents and purposes, like a replay of the T-top experience, except you traded the convenience of not having to lug the thing to the trunk for the downside that you still had the bit of the car you’d hit your head on. Just something to be drafty, and leak when it rained.
I thought that right up until a couple of weeks ago, when my mother bought a MINI Cooper, and, while driving it around, I suddenly realized that it’s not the T-top experience, and it’s nothing to compare to a convertible either. The moonroof thing is… somewhere in the middle. It’s a little like the convertible in that all you have to do is push a button, and a little like the T-top in that you don’t get that full-on open-top experience. Of the two, it’s much closer to the T-top experience, but the downsides are so much less with a moonroof, it’s hard to believe.
As a ragtop snob, I was completely prepared to find the MINI’s moonroof pointless, but I just can’t. Sure, you’re sacrificing an inch or two of headroom, and the MINI’s popup air dams make an irritating rattling noise if you don’t find the friction points and damp them, but it doesn’t leak, it doesn’t let in a draft, and here’s something else it shares with my convertible: it’s got nice features even when it’s closed. It’s glass, so you can see through it, but it’s nicely tinted, so you don’t roast in the sun. It’s surprising what a difference that makes to the atmosphere inside the car. (The old Camaro’s T-tops were glass too, but they were laid out such that you couldn’t see anything through them from a normal driving position.)
There’s even one thing the MINI’s moonroof can do that – if I’m being honest – I have to admit my beloved convertible can’t.
I live in a town with two traffic lights, both of them on the main drag through town. This is a route that big trucks with full loads of logs often take, and over the years, as yahoo truckers with bigger and bigger overloads have made the run and bashed the lights, the town has jacked them up higher and higher – to the point where, if you’re driving a normal-size car and you stop where the painted line on the street tells you to, you can’t see the lights without doing some very interesting contortions.
Unless it’s a nice sunny day and you have the top down… or you’re in my mom’s MINI. Then, even if it’s raining, you just look up through the moonroof, and there you are. It’s difficult to encapsulate the delight you feel when you first notice that little trick.
At this point, I’m prepared to say that the only real downside to the moonroof on a MINI is that, if you’ve got one, you can’t get the Union Jack roof graphic.