When Nissan yesterday unveiled the name and photos of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, it did not provide significant new information. But revealing the name and design was enough to give a jolt to green car fans on the web. No longer an amorphous concept, Nissan’s electric car can now be stacked up against other plug-in cars and hybrids for its look and feel, features, and likely cost. The reviews from the blogosphere—usually an irreverent crowd—were mixed.

Nissan Leaf Electric Car
Ford Focus

Top: Nissan Leaf
Bottom: Ford Focus

The Nissan Leaf’s closest comparable future all-electric car is the Ford Focus EV. The two vehicles are remarkably similar in size and capabilities. Both vehicles are expected to offer 100 miles in driving range. The Nissan Leaf’s lithium ion battery pack has a capacity of 24 kilowatt hours, while the Focus EV holds 23 kilowatt hours of energy. Both vehicles will carry five passengers and measure 175 inches in length, while the Nissan Leaf has a longer wheelbase by about three inches.

Although the Nissan Leaf, due in late 2010, is expected to beat the Ford Focus EV to the market by about one year, it’s likely that the Leaf’s first customers will predominantly be fleets. In other words, the two vehicles will become available roughly in the same timeframe. Official pricing has not been released for either vehicle, but both are expected in the $30,000 range.

The distinguishing characteristic could be design—pitting the established look of the Ford Focus against the purpose-built Nissan Leaf. (Ford has not confirmed if the Focus EV will differ from the conventional Focus.) When we spoke last November with Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning, he said, “We want to make sure [the design] is iconic, as something different, unique and futuristic. But not in a Blade Runner, George Jetson kind of way.” That was not the impression many blog commenters had.

Nissan Leaf Electric Car
Ford Focus

Top: Nissan Leaf
Bottom: Ford Focus

Richard S posted this comment on HybridCars.com: “Pretty ugly. If the Focus EV looks anything close to the current Focus, then Nissan’s gonna have a rough time.” An anonymous visitor wrote: “This thing looks like something that came out of a cleaning lab. Kind of makes me think this thing is going to start selling me cleaning products.”

Comments from other sites offered a number of colorful descriptions, including “the offspring of a Smurf and a the Pillsbury Dough Boy,” and “a Nissan Murano meets a catfish,” and “what would happen if a Mazda3 and a Toyota Matrix had a baby.”

Sean, posting on AutoBlog.com, explained the Prius-like front slope by writing, “I personally like the design, the front is the aerodynamic shape but the back end is more unique, not the typical teardrop.” Writing on GM-Volt.com, a fan site dedicated to the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, Don C wrote: “The design seems pleasant enough. I like it subjectively. Plus the design more or less tells you what the car is. It says ‘I’m a little guy with cool tech suitable for driving locally’.” Don C believes would be a mistake to make the car look “like a super car.”

The Nissan Leaf will be arriving almost exactly when the Chevy Volt is introduced in late 2010—although it appears that the Volt will be priced $10,000 or more above the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus EV. Automotive News reported today that production costs for the Chevy Volt are “running far above projections.” According to the trade publication, the price will be about $40,000—and General Motors is struggling to keep down the costs. All of these competing electric-drive vehicles are expected to benefit from $7,500 consumer tax credits.

Although it will be more expensive, the Chevy Volt is a plug-in hybrid offering a driving range equal of beyond most gas-powered cars, while the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, and other electric cars will be limited to approximately 100 miles in range. The new plug-in cars will also be competing against conventional hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, which are priced in the low- to mid-$20,000s. Toyota and Honda are both expected to introduce compact or sub-compact hybrids that could be priced even lower.

When all these choices become available, consumers interested in cutting-edge fuel-efficient technologies will have to make sense of the new automotive landscape—balancing considerations for driving range, price, fuel efficiency, drivetrain technologies, and design.