Automakers occasionally conjure up some curious strategies for peddling their wares -- and now "pedaling" is taking on a literal meaning. With a peculiar twist on the warm-`n'-fuzzy, '90s-style "relationship marketing" that's the current rage, several automakers hope to make consumers more predisposed toward their four-wheeled offerings by enticing them with transportation of the two-wheeled variety.

Bicycles of all types-- folded in the trunk, strapped to the roof, even electric-powered -- are in vogue as automotive relationship marketing tools. In much the same way that sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) pander to consumers' perceived notions of their "active" lifestyles, automakers believe bicycles make a similar connection.

Part of the formula is explained by the explosive popularity of mountain biking. Born in 1971, the rough sport made a quick sprint to the top of the hill, so to speak, as this year it became an Olympic event.

Tuning in to the bike boom, several automakers -- among them Mercedes-Benz AG, Volkswagen AG, BMW AG and Chrysler Corp.'s Jeep Div. -- have contracted for their own bicycles. Although the critical among us may see the bond between pedal-power and horsepower as nebulous, many of the new bikes sold by automakers are nonetheless technically interesting -- and have a more realistic association to the auto industry.

"This is not marketing," says BMW's product information specialist Thomas Zauber. "BMW is a mobility company; we're not just cars and motorcycles. There are times and places you would rather take a bike. With ours, you can just unfold it from the trunk and head off."

BMW helped Olympians and Olympic security head off by supplying 1,000 of its special-edition cycles for use at this year's Atlanta games.

Although the Olympics definitely supplied extra oomph to the hype, Mr. Zauber says the sport is nothing new to BMW. "We have other bikes as well, since we started making them in 1994. We offer a cross (functional) bike, with thinner wheels, and we added a tandem to the lineup."

The foldable red, white and blue Olympic cycles came to the games through a partnership between BMW and Montague Corp. The $795 bike, now available through BMW dealers, features cantilevered brakes and 21 speeds, shifted via a cool "index" function by twisting the handgrips. The bike's front forks incorporate an elaborate, adjustable elastomer suspension system, and the pedals are designed for special biking shoes that allow the rider to lock into the pedals in much the same fashion as ski boots click onto the skis.

The BMW's features put it firmly into the techie end of the market, but at 29 lbs. (13 kg) -- nobody's going to win any medals with it.

"This is a fun-to-ride bike, made for the typical car customer, not the typical bike customer," Mr. Zauber admits.

Perhaps that typical bike customer will be swayed by the Mercedes-Benz cycle instead: As might be expected from Mercedes, its bicycle is over-the-top in technology and price.

"This growing sport and technology appeals to our owners," says Mercedes' Fred Heiler. "This is not a common bike. We think Mercedes owners will appreciate the technology and recognize the value."

Apparently some already have. Mercedes-Benz already has 200 orders from dealers, a number outstripping the expected "production capacity" of 100 to 150 units. The demand is phenomenal considering the bike's staggering $3,300 sticker.

Mr. Heiler, too, argues that bikes are not just an image gimmick -- it's more like demographics. "Our owners tend to be younger and lead more active lifestyles than years ago. (The bike) is a perfect complement to the automaker," he says.

The 24-lb. (11-kg) wunderbike comes through a partnership with AMP Research, a bicycle components supplier. For $3,300 you get fantastic-looking hydraulically activated disc brakes at each wheel (sorry, no antilock control just yet), carbon-fiber fork legs said to have triple the strength of common forks and a complex, lavishly designed suspension at both ends.

The rear suspension is a particularly elegant "Horst-link" swing arm and damped by its own little shock absorber. The Horst setup supposedly functions independently of the pedaling and braking forces that negatively influence similar designs. It also makes folding the bike into its travel case less of a chore than with other foldable two-wheelers.

If the hefty price-tags of the Bavarian-maker bikes can hurt customers' pocketbooks, Volkswagen's gambling that "free" will work with consumers like a well-lubed chain. All right, it's not exactly free: one does have to pay for the car, but VW's willing to throw in a bike and rack for buying its Jetta Trek model.

Bikemaker Trek USA and VW teamed up to offer the 21-speed bike and to sponsor a professional mountain bike team.

The bike and the car sell for about $14,500, and lease customers keep the bike as a freebie once the lease expires. VW expects to continue the promotion into late fall.

VW, too, says the company is seeking to please the customer's desires. "Our buyers tend to be young at heart, and the Jetta Trek reflects their interests and activities," says VW's Tony Fouladpour. "We hope they already have an interest in the sport, we are simply adding value to the car."

Finally, Malcolm Bricklin is back with a bike for not-so-active riders, the EV Warrior.

Touted as the first mass-produced and distributed electric vehicle (EV), the EV Warrior comes to the public through the partnership of Malcolm Currie, former CEO of Hughes Aircraft and Delco Electronics, and Mr. Bricklin, the entrepreneurial automotive maverick. The two designed the vehicle, formed the Electric Bicycle Co., and manufacture it through an agreement with Sanyo Corp. and Giant Bicycle.

Mr. Bricklin's involvement in the project should come as no surprise, as the past shows he is not a stranger to unusual ideas and risky ventures. Mr. Bricklin founded Subaru of America Inc. in 1968 and moved on to manufacturing, founding General Vehicle in 1971, producing his gull-wing safety/sports car, the Bricklin, in 1974. The car disappeared just two years later, but in the '80's, Mr. Bricklin brought the Bertone X1/9 and Pininfarina Spyder to the U.S. and then the unlamented Yugo, eventually selling his interest in both projects.

Just as the Yugo met the needs of small-car buyers in 1984, Mr. Bricklin hopes to do the same with the EV Warrior. "The world's been clamoring for a practical, convenient and economical electric vehicle. Now it's a reality," says Mr. Bricklin.

The moped-like two-wheeler has all the fittings of a regular recreational bike, but with an added bonus for uphill travel: Two 24-volt, 900-watt electric motors take over when the legs are unwilling.

EV Warrior tops out at 20 mph (32 km/h), and ranges up to 15 miles (24 km) between charges.

Targeted for commuters, college students, environmentalists and messengers, the electric capability of EV Warrior isn't its only nifty feature. The higher-priced EVX model also comes with directional signals, flashing hazard lights, brake lights, a hydraulic front disc brake, and a Guardian electronic anti-theft security system.

The Warrior starts at $1,399 for the base model, working its way up to $1,899 for the loaded version. The company expects to make 50,000 of the environmentally friendly Warriors by December 1996.