The Optima caters to three types of drivers, with respect to performance. Base cars have a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with direct injection, 200 horsepower and just a touch of noise and vibration when it's wound out. A manual six-speed is offered; we've tested the six-speed automatic, which teams expertly with the four. A turbocharged SX variant whistles along with 274 horsepower and paddle controls for the automatic, transforming the Optima's personality into something authentically sporty, along the lines of the latest Buick Regal or the VW CC.
Above those models in complexity (and fuel-efficiency) is the Hybrid, which teams up the basic four-cylinder with an electric-motor system and lithium-polymer battery pack. Compared to other full hybrid systems, the one in the Optima Hybrid could use more work on smoothing and integrating the juddering that sometimes comes at midrange speeds, when the hybrid drivetrain drops gas power to operate on electric charge alone.
With all powertrains, highway gas mileage hits a minimum of 33 mpg in turbos, with four-cylinders hitting a stellar 35 mpg and hybrids reaching to a rated 39 mpg. We've had difficulty hitting the hybrid's high-water marks, but the basic Optima offers repeatable, real-world gas mileage that's tops in its class, and equal to some economy cars.
In ride and handling, the 2012 Optima fits in with the top entries among mid-size sedans—although it's certainly not perfect. The engines work well in concert with the independent suspension, giving the Optima a quick, nimble feel. The Optima's steering is responsive, but a little hefty and not as nicely weighted and communicative as that in the Fusion, Mazda6, or Altima; on the other hand it's much better than the similar Sonata at controlling a little bit of wandering that comes with some kinds of road surfaces and its fuel-economy-aiding tires.