We've spent the last six months and more than 10,000 miles behind the wheel of the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid, and now it's time to send it off. But before we do, we think it's important to offer a few parting sentiments on how this car has performed.

At its core, the Kia Optima is one heck of a bargain. It's a lot of car for only $21,000 in its base trim. Load it up with options and you get Lexus-like luxury for Honda Accord money. Our hybrid model came with all of the optional equipment: leather heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel, bi-Xenon automatic headlights, panoramic sunroof, LED taillights and keyless entry and start. Navigation, voice controls and heated rear seats are part of our testers options as well. At only $32,000, we have a hard time understanding why shoppers would consider buying a Lexus ES or Acura TL for $10,000 more. We were extremely impressed with the quality of materials and the sheer number of options available on the Optima. For a few thousand dollars less than a comparable Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, the price-per-amenities equation definitely tilts in Kia's favor.

When it comes to fuel economy, however, the Optima Hybrid isn't really the superstar we expected. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ratings claimed 35 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, but we weren't always able to match those estimates. Frankly, it really depends on how you used the Optima Hybrid. Site Editor Brian Moody was able to get 52.1 mpg on one 200-mile stretch of I-85 just outside Charlotte, N.C. Senior Manager of Content Strategy Scott Markle took the Optima on a trip to Florida and had this to say: "We averaged just 32 mpg on the highway for our Florida road trip, significantly less than the EPA's 40-mpg rating. Once we unpacked and relaxed, we averaged closer to 37 mpg around town, a little better than the EPA's 35 mpg."

For all the premium features available in the Optima Hybrid, we found the hybrid drivetrain to be less than refined. Frequently, we could feel the car switching between gas and electric power, and some drivers felt the car could use a little more power. (But brisk starts from a dead stop make the Optima Hybrid feel downright quick.) None of this is an indictment of the Optima Hybrid itself but rather a fair assessment of all hybrids. Even better known hybrids like the Toyota Prius have a different driving demeanor--especially for those used to gasoline-only cars. Is the resulting fuel economy worth the trade off in comfort? For some it is, but not for others.

In the end, we fell in love with the 2012 Kia Optima's styling, high-quality interior and luxurious features. It's simply wonderful. The base 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine offers most of the features we love at an even more attractive price, with a more refined powertrain and solid fuel economy of 24-mpg city/35-mpg highway. If you want more power, the 274-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder is satisfyingly quick, with a marginal impact on fuel economy at 22/34. For these reasons, the Optima should remain high on your list.

In fact, our Kia Optima hybrid made such an impression on our staff that two people who drove or rode in the car decided to buy one for themselves. We've had plenty of cars in the AutoTrader garage and never has a test car resulted in that many purchases. Remember, these are people whose job it is to be objective about cars. Sr. Product Manager Ryan Dickerson drove the Kia Optima Hybrid and purchased an Optima EX the following week. Sr. Content Strategy Manager Scott Markle drove our long-term Optima to visit his mom and she was so impressed that she bought an Optima SXL. Content Producer Davis Adams had a similar experience. He drove our long-term Optima to visit his mom, and she said, "This is probably my next car." High praise for sure!

Here's the bottom line: We're not sold on hybrids as the only way to get great fuel economy. The Volkswagen Passat TDI gets an EPA-estimate of 43-mpg highway, and many owners have done even better. Kia's own Forte Eco model is rated at 37 mpg on the highway and 30 mpg in combined city and highway driving. The new 2013 Nissan Altima earns an EPA estimate of 38 mpg on the highway. Lined up against these strong competitors, we still think the Kia Optima is a compelling choice in today's mid-size sedan segment.

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Davis Adams is a writer and content producer for the AutoTrader.com editorial team. Previously, he helped craft digital media for several automotive industry brands, including Consumer Reports, Toyota and Porsche. Davis feels at home on the track, and he owns a 2006 Lotus Elise that has seen its fair share of autocross courses.

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