Almost perfection.

Almost, because the 2000 model Mercedes-Benz 500S sedan offers no TV, fridge or vending machines to dispense meals, snacks or beverages while cruising the countryside.

And because the 13 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highway fuel-economy rating is only slightly better than that of one of the behemoth sport-utes and saddles the 500S sedan with a $1,000 gas-guzzler tax.

But you'd be hard-pressed to drive up to the pump--often--in a roomier, more comfortable, more luxurious vehicle.

The top-of-the-line S sedan has been redesigned for 2000 and powertrains revamped for the first time since 1992. There are two versions in showrooms, the 430S with a 4.3-liter V-8 and the 500S with a 5-liter V-8.

While both have added more standard equipment, the base price has been lowered by $9,600 on the 500S to $77,850, and by $4,200 on the 430S to $69,700.

You say you didn't spend $69,700 to $77,850 for your first house? Chances are your first house wasn't as nice as the S.

The 2000 S sedan has rounder edges and massive sloping headlamps surrounding the trademark horizontal bar grille. Those lamps are distinctive and rich looking.

Bigger-is-better loyalists may be irked that wheelbase and length are about 2 inches shorter, width an inch narrower and height 2 inches shorter, but the loss appears to be outside the cabin, not inside, where leg, head and arm room are spacious. The rear cabin is limo-like and options allow you to power, heat or cool those seats.

And 500 pounds were shed, a weight loss you'll feel in the wheel when making more limber maneuvers and in the seat of your pants when you apply the brakes and have 500 fewer pounds to stop.

The S sedan, last redone in 1992, came with a 3.2-liter in-line 6, 4.2- and 5-liter V-8s and a 6-liter V-12. For 2000 the choices are a revised 4.3-liter, 275-horsepower V-8 and an upgraded 5-liter, 302-h.p. V-8.

For 1999, the 4.2-liter V-8 carried a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax; the 5-liter V-8 a $1,700 guzzler tax. For 2000, the 4.3-liter V-8 carries no guzzler tax; the 5-liter, a $1,000 guzzler penalty. So add $700 saved in guzzler fees to the $9,600 500S price cut.

The S sedans offer a diesel engine in Europe but not in the U.S. unless and until federal fuel-economy laws get stricter or buyers demand it.

To simplify further, the S sedan is now offered in long wheelbase only.

The only transmission is a 5-speed automatic that also allows clutchless manual shifting when you tap the lever.

The Airmatic suspension provides smooth, stable ride and handling. Plush without being too soft, yet firm without snapping over every ripple in the road. You can look forward to long trips in total comfort.

As an added benefit, once you top 37 m.p.h., the air suspension lowers the body by one-half inch to provide better air flow and reduce turbulence. Once slower than 37 m.p.h., the body rises again.

The 500S sedan we tested, however, lacked two desirable features--Distronic and Park tronic.

Distronic is supposed to be added in late fall at the earliest but maybe not until spring. Distronic is a radar system linked to the cruise control that will apply the brakes and/or limit engine power to decelerate the car when you get too close to a vehicle ahead. The speed of both vehicles determines the distance separating the two.

But you can only activate it when you engage cruise control. So Distronic only works in those situations favorable to cruise control--long stretches of open highway. Good idea that would be better if it worked without using cruise control.

Parktronic ($975) uses sonar sensors in the front and rear bumpers to touch off a series of warnings--first blinking yellow, then red, lights and finally a beep--if you get too close to vehicles when parallel parking or when backing up and an object, such as a bike or person, is behind you.

But the test car was loaded with other items, such as eight air bags: dual front and side bags for driver a nd passenger, dual side bags for rear-seat passengers and a curtain that drops from the roof like a mattress to cover the side glass and protect front- and rear-seat passengers' heads in a side impact.

The front passenger bag is the "smart" variety, meaning it will deploy at full force in a high-speed impact, partial force in a low-speed impact.

Then, too, there is a "baby smart" front seat that prevents the passenger bag from deploying when a special Mercedes infant carrier is upfront.

Also standard in the S sedan is Electronic Stability Program or ESP, a form of traction control that sends power to the tire or tires not slipping to maintain traction and keep you in the direction pointed without skidding--even if three tires are on ice.

The S sedan also comes with standard brake assist in which sensors detect panic braking based on pedal pressure to engage anti-lock brakes.

Mimicking Cadillac and its OnStar emergency communications system, the Mercedes S sedan offers TeleAid that employs global positioning satellites to pinpoint your location when mechanical or medical help is needed.

To summon medical help, you press the SOS button in the roof and are immediately put in contact with a Mercedes care provider. If an air bag has deployed, the system automatically summons help.

TeleAid also features information and roadside assistance. Press the "i" info button in the center console and the Mercedes help desk answers any question about the car, such as how to program the standard navigation system.

If you have a flat tire, press the button with the wrench symbol on it, and the help desk summons mechanical aid.

You don't have to purchase the optional cell phone/CD changer package ($1,600) to use TeleAid because it operates on its own cellular system. There is no charge for TeleAid for the first year of ownership. After that, there is a yearly $149 fee.

As for the Mercedes--or any--navigation system, we lose interest after 20 minutes of playtime, especially when the suggested route home is the one we avoid due to congestion. And when the voice advised to "turn left" at the next street when the house was right, we pushed the off button and left it there.

To program it properly, you must scroll through and choose from the city, address, fastest route, direct route, etc., menu by dialing up one letter at a time. Computer geeks probably will savor navigation capabilities, but we still haven't mastered e-mail.

The voice-activated phone is nice. Press a button on the steering column, say "dial" and the number, and you call without fumbling with a cell phone and teeny dial pad. But this phone demands voice precision when giving a number to call. Pause to stammer "ah," and the system takes "ah" to be an "O."

Other noteworthy features include a dash button to raise/lower rear-seat headrests, though when a rear-seat passenger fastens his or her safety belt, the headrest raises to offer protection.

Also, when you use the t urn indicator lever, lights in the front of the outside mirrors also flash as an added warning you are about to turn; press a button and those mirrors fold flush to the body; rain sensors activate the wipers when water strikes the glass; and a humidity sensor keeps the cabin at the most comfortable setting.

Also, press a button when you turn the ignition off and leave the car for an errand and the heater pumps warm air into the cabin for 30 minutes; a charcoal air filter removes cabin odors when trailing a diesel bus or an 18-wheeler hauling hogs; and hidden compartments in the dash and under each front seat hold items such as keys, wallet or first-aid kit.

The 500S we tested starts at $77,850. Options include power rear seats at $1,750; heated rear seats at $595; electric rear-window sunshade at $495; and integrated CD changer and voice activated portable phone at $1,620. Add $595 for freight.

Other than Distronic ($3,775 with rear window sunshade and Parktronic), notew orthy options are climate control seats with lumbar support ($1,500 rear seats, $1,940 front seats) that pump air through the perforated leather to cool you in the summer and inflate/deflate a half dozen air bladders twice a minute to relax the spine and back while traveling.

>> 2000 Mercedes-Benz S500
© 1999 Chicago Tribune Wheelbase: 121.5 inches Length: 203.1 inches Engine: 5-liter, 302-h.p. V-8 Transmission: 5-speed automatic Fuel economy: 16 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highway and $1,000 gas-guzzler tax Base price: $77,850 Price as tested: $82,310. Includes $1,750 for electrically adjusted rear seats; $495 electric rear window sun shade; $595 heated rear seats; and $1,620 integrated CD changer/portable phone. Add $595 for freight. Pluses: With a TV and fridge, you could live in this car. Smooth, luxurious ride. Limo-like interior room. Air bags that drop from the roof to cover windows in side impact. Sonar to warn of objects too close when parking; radar to warn objects too close when driving to automatically slow you down. A $9,600 price decrease from '99. Minuses: No TV or fridge. Radar braking active only when cruise control engaged. The gas-guzzler tax because of the low fuel economy.>>