A version of Harley Davidson's Street 750 is displayed at the 12th Indian auto Expo in Noida, India, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

New Delhi - “Plush pink” and “burgundy bliss” scooters are the new buzz on India’s roads, even as the rest of the vehicle 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 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 to December last year, 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 declined.

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,” Abdul Majeed, a partner at PwC India, said.

“Housewives are also using scooters to drop [off] kids and buy vegetables,” Majeed said, adding that he expected strong sales growth to continue and for firms to launch more scooters geared towards women.

Yamaha launched its first Indian scooter designed for women, the Ray, in 2012. The bike sells for about about 47 000 rupees (R8 400) and comes in colours such as “starry white”, “plush pink” and “burgundy bliss”. About 70 percent of the women who buy it for themselves are less than 30 years old, according to the company.

“They don’t want to trouble their parents or brothers. They want personal mobility,” said Roy Kurian, the vice-president of marketing and sales at Yamaha in India. “If a guy had to ride then he would have gone for a motorcycle.”

The potential 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 yesterday that it would build a fourth motorcycle factory in India with initial investment of about 11 billion Indian rupees and annual output capacity of 1.2 million bikes.

The factory, to be located in the state of Gujarat, is due to start production next year.

About 3 000 new jobs will be created at the plant, which will mainly manufacture scooters.

Last month Honda expanded capacity at its third motorcycle factory in India by 600 000 units a year. The fourth plant will bring Honda’s annual capacity in the biggest two-wheeler market to 5.8 million motorcycles.

Local player Hero Moto also sees the potential of women buyers. “Why should boys have all the fun?” asks Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra in an ad for Hero’s Pleasure scooter.

Besides being more manoeuverable than motorbikes, the step-through frame of a scooter makes it easy to ride wearing a skirt or sari. Scooters also have space under the seat to stow a handbag.

While the scooter provides an alternative to using public transport, safety issues abound on India’s notoriously dangerous roads. – Reuters