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Q&A with Webasto: Roof market trends

By Matthew Beecham | 26 May 2011

Thomas Schütt

Thomas Schütt

Panoramic sunroofs stretching the length and breadth of a vehicle are becoming increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. These designs give the best of both worlds: saving on cost (compared to a convertible) and adding to the versatility of the car.  In this interview, Matthew Beecham talked with Thomas Schütt, director of product management, roof and body, Webasto and Walter Pecho, vice president, R&D, Webasto-Edscha Cabrio, Webasto Group.

just-auto: Could we start by asking for your perception about the popularity of retractable hard-tops versus the soft-top. Why are retractable hard-tops so popular these days?

Walter Pecho: There was a lot of excitement and popularity about this new type of convertible roof system, when the RHT’s [retractable hardtops] started to enter the market about 6 to 8 years ago. Currently we see with regards to the quotations from OEMs that this has cooled down to some extent. Nevertheless RHTs will have a high percentage of convertibles also in the future. But they will definitely not replace soft-tops. We also have to acknowledge that the introduction of RHTs increased the community of convertible car drivers. RHTs are interesting for those customers who feel safer under a metal roof.

just-auto: Over the past few years, we’ve seen the emergence of two, three and four-part retractable hardtops.  Could this trend render the coupe obsolete?

Walter Pecho: A coupe-driver is not necessarily a convertible-driver. With a RHT, there are specific design needs and weight is added to the car which a coupe-driver would not accept necessarily.

just-auto: I guess getting the balance right between weight, packaging, styling, material, price, crash requirements, luggage compartment space and stiffness is becoming even more important. And the more sections the RHT folds into, the greater the complexity and cost. How do you set about achieving that balance?

Walter Pecho: It is correct to say that complexity increases with the number of panels. In our opinion, the optimum between styling and complexity on a two-seater would be a two-part folding top, and on a four-seater a three-part folding top. Nevertheless, there are interesting additions like five-piece or, on the other end, a one-piece RHTs matching perfectly the individual car design.

just-auto: I guess for luxury cars, RHTs tend to be more of a challenge because of the extra acoustic, aerodynamic and styling demands. Is that right?

Walter Pecho: Of course, for luxury cars there are additional needs regarding acoustics and aerodynamics demands. A major issue specifically with RHTs is to fulfill the styling needs of OEMs. However, demands are also increasing in the lower segments.

just-auto: Are roof systems becoming so complex that the next challenge is to simplify them?

Walter Pecho: I think there is now a common understanding between suppliers and OEMs that we have reached the top level of complexity and it is now the time to optimise details.

just-auto: As we see it, a number of trends are notable in hard-top designs. First, the sheer size and sophistication of the products. Panoramic sunroofs stretching the length and breadth of a vehicle are becoming increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Second, roof systems are fast becoming part of a car’s identity. Third, roof systems are developed along modular lines with suppliers hoping that car manufacturers will begin standardizing roofs to allow a variety of pre-sized modules to fit the openings. Would you agree?

Thomas Schütt: Yes. Definitely there is a comeback of roof systems in cars. Also, the modularisation should help to increase take rate even more in the future. We can confirm the trend to use the panoramic roof as a design feature of the car. End-consumers see especially the rail-to-tail design of panorama roofs and the features “fresh air” and “natural daylight” as an ongoing trend (want to have) and a requirement to future car models. Modular design is a general trend in the automotive industry as the diversification of vehicle brands continue. This is a trend for supplied parts, too.

just-auto: What are the trends you are seeing in sunroof designs? e.g. larger sunroofs, solar powered sunroofs?

Thomas Schütt: The trend in sunroofs is in direction to bigger transparent areas and bigger openings to bring higher comfort to the end customers. This is accompanied with the need of light materials like polycarbonate. We at Webasto produce already a polycarbonate roof system for the smart fortwo. This fixed transparent module has a size of 1.2 m2 and a weight of just 7.6 kg. One special trend is also the integration of solar cells in the roof skin directly or in the sunroof panels. Webasto already delivers solar sunroofs to the market for more than 20 years.

just-auto: Is there still a move toward a “bottom-load, big roof”, i.e. a middle niche developing which is between a traditional sunroof and an all-glass moving system.  How is that niche or trend evolving?

Thomas Schütt: We see both trends, bottom load bigger sunroofs with two or more panels and as well a top load rail-to-rail system where the roof skin is completely replaced. The second trend towards top-load systems is stronger, as the roof is becoming a key element of the car´s design – its identity.

just-auto: I’ve heard it said that SUVs represent the largest growth opportunities for the wide opening panorama roofs, followed by sedans.  How do you see the market opportunities for these panoramic roofs?  Are crossovers the ideal segment?

Thomas Schütt: Crossover vehicles are a strong segment for sunroofs. Those vehicles do have a large roof skin and are ideal for the integration of large roof opening systems. The owners of those vehicles do look for comfort options, like “fresh air” or “natural daylight”