Not only are the new ’08 Super Duty pickups already on sale, but the redesigned, 2008 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner compact utility vehicles are now arriving at dealerships as well.

The redesign, with some significant but not drastic exterior changes, includes the hybrid models of each, as well.

Both the Escape and Mariner, which essentially are versions of the same vehicle, are new “inside and out,” Ford says.

Among the improvements are several new standard safety features, including Ford’s Safety Canopy side-curtain air bags and electronic stability control. Both are standard on the gasoline-only models, Ford said.

Also standard is Ford’s roll-stability control system, which debuted earlier on the Explorer. It’s designed to help prevent a rollover accident, while the side-curtain air bags are there to help protect the passengers should a rollover occur.

Not only have the Escape and Mariner been improved, but prices have been lowered as well.

The suggested list price of the 2008 Escape base model is about $1,100 less than that of the 2007 model.

Prices begin at $19,245 (including $665 freight) for the gasoline models, and $25,740 for the Escape hybrid with front drive ($27,490 with four-wheel drive).

The price differential between a front-drive hybrid and a comparably equipped gasoline-only Escape is only about $1,200 when the federal hybrid tax credit is applied. Mariner models average about $1,300 less than their 2007 counterparts, Ford says.

The base price for the gasoline-only 2008 Mariner is $21,395, including freight. The hybrid begins at $26,430.

Ford hopes that the changes will help the Escape continue its success. It has been the best-selling compact SUV almost from the day it arrived for 2000.

The competition is getting tougher, however, as most automakers have brought new or significantly redesigned compact crossovers to market over the past year.

They include the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Pontiac Torrent, and Suzuki XL-7.

Later this year, Saturn will roll out a redesigned Vue, which also comes in a hybrid version.

Besides the new safety features, Ford says the 2008 Escape and Mariner have “more upscale interior appointments and notably improved levels of comfort and quietness.”

The under-$20,000 starting price buys a four-cylinder Escape XLS with manual transmission (add $1,000 for a four-speed automatic) but Ford doesn’t expect to sell a lot of those.

The most-popular Escape model, the company says, will be the midlevel XLT V-6, which will account for about half of all Escape sales. That model starts at $22,545 with front-wheel drive, and $24,295 with four-wheel drive. The XLT with four-cylinder engine begins at $21,545; with four-wheel drive, it’s $23,295.

The most-expensive gasoline-powered version is the Limited, which starts at $24,245 with front drive, and $25,595 with four-wheel drive.

The four-cylinder engine is not offered on the Mariner, nor is the manual transmission. That’s in keeping with Ford’s strategy of positioning Mercury products slightly upscale from similar Ford models.

Lowering the prices is part of Ford’s “Way Forward” restructuring plan, the company said.

Ford also is adding some features that today’s consumers are demanding – such as an auxiliary jack for the audio system that allows for direct connection of an iPod or other MP3 player. Other new items include a front storage bin with a 12-volt power outlet and enough room for a laptop computer.

Options include Sirius satellite radio and a touch screen navigation system. In the past, the nav system was available only on hybrid models.

Powertrain choices for the gas-only models include the base 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine, rated at 153 horsepower and 152 foot-pounds of torque; and a 3.0-liter V-6, which produces 200 horsepower and 193 foot-pounds of torque.

The four-cylinder engine is paired with either a five-speed manual transmission or the four-speed automatic, while the V-6 comes only with the four-speed automatic.

Hybrid models come with a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder Atkinson cycle gasoline engine and a 70-kw electric motor, connected to a continuously variable automatic transmission. This is a true hybrid system, unlike those used on the Honda Civic and Accord hybrids and the Saturn Vue Green Line.

On those vehicles, the electric motor is used only to assist the gasoline engine, but cannot propel the vehicle alone.

But with the Escape and Mariner, along with all of Toyota’s hybrids and the new Nissan Altima hybrid, the electric motor can move the vehicle by itself at speeds up to about 25 mph.

The Escape/Mariner hybrids’ gasoline engine is rated at 133 horsepower, and the electric motor is equivalent to 94 horsepower. It’s powered by a 330-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack under the back seat.

Together they give these vehicles a combined 155 horsepower, and 50 percent better fuel economy in city driving than a V-6 powered Escape or Mariner.

EPA fuel-economy ratings run as high as 20 miles per gallon city/29 highway for the four-cylinder gasoline-only Escape with manual transmission.

With automatic transmission and two-wheel drive, the four-cylinder is rated at 23 city/26 highway. The V-6 engine is rated at 20/24 with front drive, and 19/23 with four-wheel drive.

For the hybrid models, the ratings are 36 mpg city/31 highway with front drive, and 32 city/29 highway with four-wheel drive. Highway mileage is generally lower than city mileage on true hybrids.

All models of the Escape and Mariner are designed to hold only five passengers; no third row of seating is offered. Some of the newer competitors offer a third row of seating, including the RAV4, Outlander and XL-7.

The steering system is new, Ford says. It’s a speed-sensitive system that is electric-powered.

The vehicle’s interior is all new, with better-quality materials, a new 60/40-split fold-flat rear seat, and other amenities.

Also new are 16-inch wheels.

Standard on the Escape and Mariner gasoline models is front-wheel drive, but Ford’s “intelligent” four-wheel drive is optional.

Four-wheel drive was standard on the Mariner hybrid, which did have a starting price of nearly $29,000. For 2008, however, a front-drive version is offered for the first time, at a $2,185 savings compared with the 2007 model. The four-wheel-drive 2008 model starts at $28,180.

An Audiophile sound system is available on the Escape or Mariner, featuring a six-disc, in-dash compact-disc changer, seven speakers, and a subwoofer. The navigation system comes with an integrated version of the uplevel audio system, including the CD changer and speakers.

Other options include 17-inch wheels, a moon roof, and leather upholstery with a six-way power driver’s seat.

A luxury package for the uplevel Escape Limited model brings such extras as dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats and outside mirrors, a reverse-sensing system/parking aid, and audio controls on the steering wheel. A chrome appearance package also is offered.

The Mariner comes in two trim levels for 2008, the base and Premier models.

Towing capacity is a maximum of 3,500 pounds.

The Escape is one of the few hybrids that can recoup the extra costs of the hybrid system at the gas pumps in a relatively short period, according to a recent study by the consumer automotive Web service Edmunds.com, which looked at 2007 models.

According to Edmunds, the Escape hybrid would recover the $1,218 extra cost of the hybrid system in 2.9 years at 15,000 miles a year, and 1.7 years at 25,000 miles annually.