TOKYO (Reuters) - Move over, Prius.
Riding the vogue for eco-conscious products, companies ranging from battery to tire to motorcycle makers in Japan are looking to cultivate a market that beats even hybrid cars in green credentials: electric bicycles.
Japan's motor-assisted bicycles use a small electric motor and battery pack mounted inconspicuously on the bicycle to propel the rider, constantly adjusting the motor's force to the speed and resistance of the pedaling.
That makes cycling up a hill or while carrying a heavy load a cinch, winning over a growing number of elderly and housewives in Japan. Sales of electric bicycles more than doubled from 2000 to 315,000 last year, as they became more affordable and practical.
"Once you've ridden one of our motor-assisted bicycles, you'll never go back!" a spokeswoman at Yamaha Motor beamed, urging reporters to try out a few of Yamaha's 17 electric bicycle models at a test-ride event on Friday.
The motor switches off automatically once the speed reaches the 24 km/hour (15 mph) legal limit for assisted riding, classifying the vehicles as bicycles, unlike the popular electric bicycles sold in China, which would require a license in Japan.
Yamaha Motor, Japan's No.2 motorcycle brand and top maker of electric bicycles, expects more of a tailwind for the market.
Thanks to advances in rechargeable batteries, Yamaha's standard electric bikes have a range of 39 km (24 miles), or 67 km using an optional mode that activates the motor only when desired. That's about double the range of its first model introduced in 1993.
"A lot of our customers say their range of activity on a bicycle has expanded," said Masanori Kobayashi, a senior official at Yamaha. "They're going places where they would normally take their car or a taxi."
Charging time has shrunk to two hours from 10, with one charge costing around 10 cents. One catch though is that batteries need to be replaced roughly once every two years, and they cost at least $250 each.
Electric bicycle makers, which also include Panasonic, Sanyo Electric and Bridgestone, also expect a boost from the nationwide road-rule relaxation this month that allows riders to mount two pre-schoolers as long as the bicycle clears stability and other standards.
With the motor assisting, pedaling from a dead stop -- even with 10 kg (22 lb) weights in the front and rear -- was easy and smooth, a test-ride at the Yamaha event showed.
And electric bicycle makers hope to pull more customers in.
At a separate media event, Sanyo, which supplies batteries for Yamaha's products, unveiled two new products, including the world's first motor-assisted bicycle with a carbon composite frame geared toward enthusiasts. The price tag: 627,900 yen ($6,636), versus anywhere from $800 to $2,000 for a Yamaha.
"We are introducing these new products to offer not just an easier ride but the joy and pleasure of cycling," Sanyo Vice President Takahiro Wada told reporters.
Sanyo expects total domestic shipments of motor-assisted bicycles to top 400,000 units in two years, making them a rare bright spot in the static overall bicycle market in Japan.
Sanyo and Yamaha officials said they also anticipate growth in Europe, where bicycle culture is just as pervasive.
Editing by Joseph Radford