Let the sun shine in

Let the sun shine in

Our favorite cars with panoramic roofs are a great way to get your sunshine on the cheap.

What's a panoramic roof, you ask? They're the oversize sunroofs that have been showing up on a growing number of cars and sport utility vehicles over the past few years.

Whether it's one large, continuous piece of glass, or two or three separate panels, panoramic roofs expose the entire cockpit to the sun and roll back to open at least part of the cabin to the wind.

As you might expect, they have primarily been offered on big luxury cars and SUVs. But our seven recommendations all cost less than $30,000, including destination charges, automatic transmissions and the special roof.

We think they're a great alternative to convertibles, which tend to be pricey and impractical for anyone who lives where it snows.

Do you really want to pay four, five or six grand extra for a feature you can only fully enjoy three or four months of the year? We don't.

Convertibles are also less safe in rollover accidents and tend to let in more outside noise, even with the top raised. Second-row legroom and cargo space are also compromised by the extra space a folding top requires.

So here are our panoramic picks. It doesn't matter whether the carmaker calls it a panoramic sunroof or moonroof. They all provide the same bright, airy thrill.

2013 Scion tC

Price: $20,480

Scion finally has a car that might live up to its original mandate — attract 18- to 25-year-old males who want nothing to do with the parent-brand Toyota. The tC is handsomely styled, and its 180-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine shoots it from zero to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. Despite being the most affordable model on our list, the panoramic roof is standard on every tC. We've priced tC with a six-speed automatic transmission, but if you're willing to shift for yourself, you can get your fun in the sun for $1,000 less. If safety is one of the reasons you are steering away from a ragtop, you'll like that the tC has eight airbags and received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest score of "Good" in frontal, side-impact and roof-strength tests.

2013 Hyundai Veloster

Price: $21,645

Few cars look like they're as much fun to drive as Hyundai's Veloster. It's an engaging small coupe with great lines and loaded with standard features. We particularly like that it has a hidden rear door on the passenger side for easier access to the back seat. To get the panoramic roof, we've priced out the base version with the $2,000 Style Package that includes a long list of other goodies, like an upgraded audio system and 18-inch wheels. We could have priced it out with the more dynamic 201-horsepower turbocharged engine and still come in well under our price ceiling, but the base 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission are entertaining enough to satisfy most buyers in the compact segment. In either case, you get Hyundai's industry-best warranty.

2013 Mini Cooper

Price: $22,650

Who says you can't put a panoramic roof on a small — a very small — car? Mini took the dual-pane route with the Cooper and it works just fine. BMW put its stamp on the performance bits of this little runabout, and we think the driving experience is truly exciting. We like that it feels as though you've got a lot more under your right foot as you haul through the curves than a 121-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. We can take or leave the wall clock-sized speedometer in the center of the dashboard, but otherwise we like the cabin a lot. Warning: You could spend an afternoon scrolling through the amazingly long options list before getting to the box to check for the $1,000 panoramic roof.

2014 Subaru Forester 2.5i Premium

Price: $25,820

We can attest to the redesigned Forester's performance and off-road capability, having driven it around a race track and across the desert sands of Arizona. Folding back the roof just makes it more fun. We like that all-wheel drive is standard on every Forester, while the panoramic roof is available with the Premium accessory package. Get-up-and-go comes from a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine and a CVT automatic transmission. The flat design of the engine contributes to this compact SUV's low center of gravity. The cabin is so large and comfortable that six-footers will complement the rear-seat legroom. The 2014 Forester is arriving in dealerships now.

2013 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen 2.5 SE w/Sunroof

Price: $26,990

The Sportwagen may not look as sharp as a couple of the coupes on our list, but it's the perfect ride for anyone who wants a lot of cargo-carrying capacity. It has more room behind the second-row seat than the Ford Edge, a much larger crossover. You won't need to work very hard to figure out which version of the Sportwagen has the panoramic roof. "2.5 SE w/Sunroof" is the actual model name. Five people fit comfortably in the Sportwagen's well-appointed cabin. Although a high-mileage diesel is available, we picked the gasoline-powered version with its 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission because it costs less. Besides, it's still EPA rated for 26 mpg in combined city and highway driving. It may not be hot looking, but you can't deny its utility.

2013 Kia Optima EX

Price: $27,375

Optima sets the bar for mid-size family sedans. Packed with standard features typically found on much more expensive cars, it screams value. Optima also boasts top crash-test scores, a better-than-average warranty and an EPA-estimated combined fuel economy for city and highway driving of 28 mpg. Kia's compelling exterior styling extends to the five-passenger cabin with high-end materials and careful craftsmanship. EX models are powered by a 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The panoramic roof is included in the $2,950 Premium Package. Our only nit to pick is that the roof encroaches on the already tight rear-seat headroom when it opens. That might be a deal breaker for families with tall teens.

2013 Ford Escape SE

Price: $27,360

If the Escape appears surprisingly contemporary, it's because Ford completely redesigned it for 2013. It now looks more like the rest of Ford's crossover family. In addition to drastically improving Escape's curbside appeal, the makeover stretched the wheelbase by nearly 3 inches, creating more passenger space. The SE benefits from the new 1.6-liter turbocharged engine that's a member of the Ford EcoBoost family. Delivering 178 horsepower, it and the six-speed automatic transmission conspire to deliver an EPA-estimated 26 mpg in combined city and highway driving. Seven airbags help protect passengers. Ford doesn't require an expensive options package to add the panoramic roof. It's a stand-alone extra that adds $1,395 to the cost.

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