The 2011 Nissan Leaf looks like a conventional compact hatchback with unconventionally sinuous styling.

It seats five, has all the usual safety features, and we particularly like the way the navigation system is integrated into the rest of the car’s information systems.

But the significance of the Leaf is in what it’s missing: a tailpipe, for one, and a gasoline engine for another.

As the first mass-produced electric car from a major automaker in many decades, we knew the 2011 Nissan Leaf would be a strong contender to be nominated as the GreenCarReports 2011 Best Car To Buy.

But before we drove it last month, we had several questions. Would the 2011 Leaf be a “real car,” and not just a half-baked science project? Would it drive like any other car? Would the controls and displays be so outlandish that average buyers would just be confused? And, most crucially, would its advertised 100-mile range be achievable?

Answers: Yes, yes, no, and yes.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

After a day of driving through most types of trips that Americans make during their days—except, admittedly, for hammering down a freeway at 80 mph for several hours or real cold-weather tests—the Leaf laid our fears to rest.

It’s not the sportiest compact we’ve driven, nor the most rewarding. In some ways, its character reminds us of the second-generation (2004-2009) Toyota Prius hybrid.

In other words, we suspect relatively few buyers will trade in their Bentleys or even BMWs to buy Leafs.

But that doesn’t matter.

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

The Leaf is an eminently practical compact car. It’s usable in daily traffic, has sufficient power for merging onto fast-moving freeways, and offers the usual complement of power accessories.

It’s also got brisk acceleration from standstill, as do most electric cars, because the TK-kilowatt electric motor powered by the 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack built into the floorpan of the Leaf develops maximum torque from zero rpm.

And it’s smooth and quiet, another electric-car advantage, with a particularly pleasant hushed cruising demeanor at around 40 mph.

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

Thanks to Nissan’s head PR guy getting us lost, we ran the Leaf right up to its nominal maximum of 100 miles. The car gave us plenty of warning as it reached 15 miles to go, and in due course it offered to guide us to the nearest charging station.

As we racked up the miles on two separate Leafs, our worries abated and we relaxed—just as we believe Leaf buyers will do once they realize that the Leaf can tackle 90 percent of the ways they use their cars in real life.

There won’t be that many 2011 Nissan Leafs available to buy for a couple of years. Nissan can only make 50,000 to supply the whole world until 2013, when two new plants in Tennessee and England start production.

Supply will stay tight for a couple of years—and it just got tighter last week—but the 2011 Nissan Leaf is the car to prove to U.S. buyers that it’s possible to fuel a car entirely on grid electricity and make it all work seamlessly.

But if you’ve ever even considered buying a plug-in car, the 2011 Leaf is here to prove that it’s possible to do without making significant sacrifices in your daily routine.

2011 Nissan Leaf electric car at NYC Marathon, Oct 2010, with Marathon CEO Mary Wittenberg

2011 Nissan Leaf electric car at NYC Marathon, Oct 2010, with Marathon CEO Mary Wittenberg

And that’s why we’ve nominated it as the last of the five vehicles (it fell last, alphabetically) that will contend for the GreenCarReports 2011 Best Car To Buy Award.

Check out the complete list of nominees—and, soon, the winner—at our Best Car to Buy 2011 summary page.

Remember, these are all cars that are brand new for 2011. The undisputed current green-car champion, the 2011 Toyota Prius (virtually unchanged except for a price rise), doesn’t qualify because it’s not new for 2011. Those are the rules, folks.

And, now that we’ve offered up all five nominees—the other four are the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, Honda CR-Z, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, and Lexus CT 200h—we’d like to know what you think.

Which one do YOU think should be our 2011 Best Car To Buy? Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.