NEW DELHI (Reuters) - 'Plush pink' and 'burgundy bliss' scooters are the new buzz on India's roads, even as the rest of the autos market is sputtering amid an economic slowdown.
The scooters go by names such as "Pleasure", but marketing aside, this new fleet of women-friendly bikes reflects a deeper change in attitude and society in India, and has captured the attention of foreign manufacturers such as Japan's Honda Motor Co Ltd and Yamaha Motor.
Young, well-heeled and independent-minded women, who are also conscious of the perils of using public transport, are helping to propel a boom in sales of scooters.
The rising popularity of the scooter comes at a time of nationwide protests against the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in India. In one case, a young female student died after she was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi.
Weighing convenience as well as safety, some young women, and their parents, see the scooter as the best solution for commuting to work, going to college or simply going out to meet friends.
Scooter sales were up nearly 20 percent in the nine months through December, according to Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers data, easily outpacing the 2.5 percent sales growth of full-size motorcycles. Sales of cars, trucks and buses all fell.
Still, scooters accounted for only 20 percent of India's 14 million-unit two-wheeler market in the last financial year. Two wheelers are the most common mode of transport for millions of middle-class Indians.
Both Honda and Yamaha have identified the growth potential in scooters, and are building models designed for women and adding new plants to keep up with demand.
"College-going girls and working women are really creating this demand-wave in the scooter segment," said Abdul Majeed, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers India.
"Housewives are also using scooters to drop (off) kids and buy vegetables," Majeed said, adding that he expects strong sales growth to continue and for companies to launch more scooters geared towards women.
Yamaha launched its first Indian scooter designed for women, the Ray, in 2012. The bike sells for around about 47,000 rupees ($750) and comes in colors such as 'starry white', 'plush pink' and 'burgundy bliss'. About 70 percent of the women who buy it for themselves are under 30, the company says.
"They don't want to trouble their parents or brothers. They want personal mobility," said Roy Kurian, vice president of marketing and sales at Yamaha in India. "If a guy had to ride then he would have gone for a motorcycle," he said.
The potential sales opportunities presented by India's fast-growing middle class, and in particular more independent-minded women, has caught the attention of the two-wheel giants.
Honda Motor said on Wednesday it would build a fourth motorcycle factory in India with initial investment of roughly 11 billion Indian rupees ($175.7 million) and annual output capacity of 1.2 million vehicles.
The factory, to be located in the state of Gujarat, is due to start production in 2015, the world's biggest motorcycle maker said in a statement.
About 3,000 new jobs will be created at the plant, which will mainly manufacture scooters, demand of which has surged in the world's biggest two-wheeler market.
Last month, Honda expanded production capacity at its third motorcycle factory in India by 600,000 vehicles a year. The fourth plant will bring Honda's total capacity in India to 5.8 million motorcycles a year, the company said.
Local player Hero MotoCorp also sees the potential of women buyers. "Why should boys have all the fun?" asks Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra in a commercial for Hero MotoCorp's Pleasure scooter.
Besides being more maneuverable than motorbikes, the step-through frame of scooters means makes it easy to ride wearing a skirt or traditional sari. Scooters also usually have space under the seat big enough to stow a handbag.
While the scooter provides women with an alternative to using public transport, safety issues abound on India's notoriously dangerous roads. And few would risk riding alone at night.
Manufacturers have identified the south and west of the country - regions that tend to be less socially conservative than northern India - as the most profitable markets for women-friendly scooters.
Bharat Makwana, who runs a small chemicals business in the commercial capital Mumbai, said that instead of buying a motorcycle for himself, six months ago he bought a Honda scooter so his wife and daughter could also use it.
"The scooter is for the entire family. When my 17-year-old daughter turns a year older she can use the scooter herself."
($1 = 62.4600 Indian rupees)
Additional reporting by Aditya Kalra and Sankalp Phartiyal in Greater Noida, India; Editing by Jeremy Laurence