Chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) are fusion proteins whose functional domains are often connected in a plug-and-play manner to generate multiple CAR variants. However, CARs with highly similar sequences can exhibit dramatic differences in function. Thus, approaches to rationally optimize CAR proteins are critical to the development of effective CAR T-cell therapies. Here, we report that as few as two amino-acid changes in nonsignaling domains of a CAR were able to significantly enhance in vivo antitumor efficacy. We demonstrate juxtamembrane alanine insertion and single-chain variable fragment sequence hybridization as two strategies that could be combined to maximize CAR functionality, and describe a CD20 CAR that outperformed the CD19 CAR in antitumor efficacy in preclinical in vitro and in vivo assays. Precise changes in the CAR sequence drove dramatically different transcriptomic profiles upon antigen stimulation, with the most efficacious CAR inducing an enrichment in highly functional memory T cells upon antigen stimulation. These findings underscore the importance of sequence-level optimization to CAR T-cell function, and the protein-engineering strategy described here may be applied to the development of additional CARs against diverse antigens.