Almancil, Portugal – As the childhood tale of Goldilocks suggests, the search for something ‘just right’ often lies between two extremes. Of course, what’s just right to some is not so for others, so in the case of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, this has prompted an expansion of its popular C-Class lineup to include more content, styling and performance choices to help buyers find their elusive ‘just right’ within an expanding and diversifying C-Class family.

As the childhood tale of Goldilocks suggests, the search for something ‘just right’ often lies between two extremes.

Enter the 2016 C450 AMG 4Matic, scheduled to arrive this fall, and in doing so introduce a new line of AMG products that don’t quite qualify for the similarly rebranded Mercedes-AMG lineup of hot performance cars. As such, the C450 AMG tucks in closer than the current C400 to the fire-breathing Mercedes-AMG C63 sport sedan in looks, nomenclature and power, but still offers the year-round traction advantages of all-wheel drive, a more comfortable ride, and lighter monthly fuel and car payments.

So let’s start with those looks. At this press preview event for the C450 AMG as well as the new C63 just outside Faro in sunny southern Portugal, Mercedes-Benz officials wisely chose different colours for the two models, as otherwise there would be little outside the differing rim designs to distinguish them. Both have expanded nostrils in front, similar lower body cladding all around, and nicely integrated quad exhaust tips – you really have to get up close and personal to see that the hotter C63 model’s tips protrude just a touch more, and are ringed with the AMG logo.

Peek under the hood, and the twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 engine features a red aluminum insert to signify that this engine has been breathed upon by the folks at AMG. Perhaps not as heavily as the single master engine builder who sweats the details for every AMG engine built in Affalterbach, and signs their work as such, but like elsewhere, it does provide a distinguishing touch.

It’s a similarly familiar story inside. Our C450 AMG tester didn’t have the two-tone seats or the matching dead-centre mark at 12 o’clock on the steering wheel of the C63 S we sampled (which actually made these particular interiors more distinct than the exterior design), but we’re fairly certain that C450 AMG buyers who want two-tone seats will be able to order them. What they won’t be able to receive inside is the C63’s 320 km/h speedometer, carbon-fibre look trim on the gauges, and the Race mode algorithm on the AMG Dynamic Select toggle switch on the centre console just to the left of the shifter, which adjusts throttle response, shift points, and shift speed to increasingly aggressive levels as you toggle up from Comfort to Sport and Sport+ settings. 

Then again, you also gain an Eco setting that maximizes fuel efficiency, in large part by engaging a ‘Sail’ mode when the driver lifts off the accelerator, which automatically disengages the engine from the drivetrain between 60 and 160 km/h, and essentially ‘idles’ the engine in neutral until you call up more power with your right foot. There is an occasionally noticeable de-clutching feeling that may have some drivers at first wondering if they accidentally slapped the car into neutral, but in the usual bump and grind of commuting, it will be largely transparent to most owners.

Transparent that is, until one reaches the fuel pump. The C450 AMG still doesn’t have the more realistic five-cycle North American fuel efficiency ratings, but its European figures suggest it will average a combined city and highway rating of 7.6 L/100 km. The 450’s twin-turbo V6 setup produces 367 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque, which represent increases of about 35 units each compared to the current C400 that the C450 AMG will replace.

Given the identical engine displacement and layout, chances are the C450 will ring in closer to the current C400’s 9.8 L/100 km average in the real world, which is the exact same rating as close market rivals from BMW in the 335i xDrive and notably lower than the Audi S4’s 11.2 overall rating.

What’s not nearly as close compared to these 2015 competitors are those power ratings, with the Mercedes-Benz outmuscling these well regarded sports sedans by a substantial amount, as both were neck and neck with the current 400’s output. The C450 AMG’s 0-100 km/h figure of 4.9 seconds seems to back up this claim, and lands the new sport sedan only 0.9 seconds behind the AMG C63 in this benchmark dash, though the C450 likely gains an edge in this test courtesy of its rear-biased all-wheel-drive system compared to the C63’s rear-drive only setup.

From behind the wheel, the C450 AMG feels like a regular compact luxury sedan in the default Comfort mode, with relaxed suspension settings and smooth shifts that prioritize quiet or quick response. But push that prominent AMG Dynamic Select toggle to engage Sport, and a noticeably perkier demeanour comes alive: shifts come quicker, the car seems to grow an exhaust note, and the sharper throttle response tempts you to play with the shift paddles more. The Sport+ brought along more extreme versions of everything, allowing the car to be revved to redline under hard acceleration before shifting for you instead of a few grand shy of there, but would be overly loud for day-to-day commuting for most drivers.

New for 2016, the car is smart enough to remember the last mode the driver selected, so if you have it in Sport+ before you pop into the store to pick up something on the way home, you’ll be greeted by a sharper 2,000 rpm engine bark upon startup to jolt you back into Sport+ mode. Or you could engage Sport+ just before handing the car off during Saturday afternoon errands to sneakily startle your significant other. The system is smart enough to save your selected settings for up to four hours, but after that, it defaults to Comfort mode.

Like any new generation Mercedes-Benz product, there’s some impressive technology to wow drivers and passengers alike, as well as notable safety systems that have filtered down from pricier Benz models. There’s an available head-up display that ghosts speed and navi directions onto the windscreen, plus the hand rest just above its centre controller is now also touch sensitive, though I found the usual rotating and push to select knob functioned more precisely overall. Still, the new capability is handy for drivers with helpful left-handed spouses (yes!!), since it can be turned, pushed or written upon using invisible letters or numbers to enter phone numbers or navi info.

I also played quite a bit with the optional near autonomous parking system that will spin the steering wheel for you to help you parallel park on the street, or back into a tight space in a parking lot. A few tries at the local mall impressed when its electronic ghosts took over your steering wheel, and it also touches your brakes as well – if you can resist the urge to hit the brakes first before the Benz system intervenes seemingly late in the process.

But such luxurious gadgets are available in every C-Class, so what makes the C450 AMG special are the styling and performance enhancements it brings to the newly expanded AMG party. A couple key questions remain: how close will Mercedes-Benz price the C450 and C63? Neither have been officially confirmed as of this writing, even though the C63 is set to go on sale this spring, before the 450’s debut in September. The desirability and the value equation of the C450 will depend greatly on how close its price lands next to its market rivals, and how close it lands to the C63.

The other key question for Mercedes-Benz the company is how current AMG owners will feel to see their previously rare and exclusive brand become much more common, and whether they will be willing to shell out the additional dollars for “true” AMG models with the AMG badge poised to appear on more and more rear fenders.

But from a driver’s perspective, the C450 AMG 4Matic is a welcome and sporty new middle ground in the search for that elusive ‘just right’ automotive offering.

Pricing: 2016 Mercedes-Benz C450 AMG
Base price (est.): $55,000

Competitors:
Audi S4
BMW 335i
BMW 435i xDrive Gran Coupe
Infiniti Q50 Sport
Lexus IS 350 F Sport