That's an excellent question, and I find the answers so far unconvincing. My guess is more psychological / sociological: GM has none of the sex appeal / marketing that Tesla or even BMW has. For that reason the Volt is easily overlooked or disrespected.
I'll also add that GM and other car companies already have some second-life battery efforts underway (http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2016/05/09/3775606/used-sec...), which is a very cool way of killing two birds with a single electric stone (I'm surprised this story and other like it haven't gotten more traction online). The second lives of batteries are incredibly underrated right now.
By the way, let me also recommend Steve Levine's book The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War, http://www.amazon.com/Powerhouse-America-China-Great-Battery..., which concerns the initial development of the Volt, among many other things. People who disdain the Volt should in particular read it!
IMO Tesla really nailed it with the S, many parts of it being thought of completely as an electric car from the ground up. Look at what they did with OTAs, the sled design, etc.
Regardless, the concept car was distinctive. The Prius has shown that distinctiveness helps to sell hybrids.
Handwaving, the electric motors are part of the transmission.
It's also not supposed to be elegant. It's supposed to be easy to power with gasoline.
Right - that's why the car may not get a lot of respect, and why I personally also don't care for the car no matter how good the engineering. We should be innovating for full-on electric cars. We should be ditching all cars that run on ICE equipment or support the ICE industry.
Commit fully to electric cars.
A plug-in hybrid is a more realistic option for more people.
Edit: not to mention far more affordable.
Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
"Practical and Affordable" is used vehicles, and maybe the $15k Honda Fit / Ford Focus / Toyota Corolla / similar cars. EVs aren't anywhere close to competing against the daily-driver for the typical American. They need another $10,000 off or so.
For now, electric vehicles have to mask the costs and add a bunch of luxury features (that don't really cost much money) to kinda-fake a better experience. When we see a barebones electric model under $16k, I'll know they finally made it.
These cars see about a 1/3 reduction in range in the cold, and there simply aren't any supercharger stations around here. In the winter, a Model S wouldn't be able to make it to the next nearest major city from a full charge.
The Volt is a useful intermediary step between gasoline and full electric for markets where full electric vehicles simply aren't practical yet.
I prefer the Tesla approach, but it's also unproven at Volt's price point and also infeasible for long travel in rural areas (like mine) until the Supercharger network is more developed.
Except the Prius PHV and Prius Prime, among others, actually exist, so the "no other car" part is wrong. (Sure, the exact parameters of the "short range" differ, but the general description does not.)
Once bitten, twice shy.
It's pretty sad really. If GM sold the tech to some Japanese automakers and they built cars with the exact same drivetrain but more attractive bodies (and likely nicer interiors; GM isn't known for great interiors either) and the promise of Japanese reliability, these things would probably be selling like hotcakes.
Perception and reputation are important things.
GM's decision is defensible IMHO, anecdotally, one of the major concerns around EVs is the "What happens when I run out of energy in the middle of nowhere?", and GM's approach answers that question handily. It's also shipping today at a price point Tesla can't hit. Engineering purity and the absurd performance a pure EV power train can hit aren't very relevant to the mass market.
GM wasn't reacting to EVs (except, perhaps, to GM's own experience with them); when the Volt was announced (as an EV), it was as a "better" alternative to hybrids. And for years, the "coming soon" Volt was what Chevy was waving around when other companies were actually delivering hybrids.
Microsoft made very successful desktop and then server OSes. They also made embedded OSes with varying success. Then other companies made very successful smartphone OSes, and MS tried to do the same with Windows Phone. It's been a complete disaster. Many people even admit that WP is (supposedly) a very reliable and snappy OS compared to its rivals, but it doesn't matter: it comes from MS so no one wants it. Why not? It's butt-ugly, and it has no apps, and the popular opinion of MS is not good, unlike Apple. Sound familiar? It's exactly like GM except for the bit about the apps (doesn't really apply to cars, at least not yet).
Usually, people who buy Chevys do so because they're cheaper (than foreign cars), or because they want their muscle cars (Camaro, Corvette). Volt is neither a muscle car nor cheap. People who can afford BMWs are not going to buy a Chevy, no matter what. They might have done a little better had they sold the Volt under the Cadillac moniker instead, or maybe Buick. But both of those brands have a lot of baggage too. Honestly, it would have been better for them if they still had the Saturn brand around; Saturn brought a lot of buyers into GM showrooms when it was new because it was such a departure from the same-old GM of the other brands. But they killed that off a while ago as it had turned into yet another GM brand selling nearly-identical cars with the same internals and sales were at a trickle. Cadillacs are mainly just purchased by old people, and Buicks are mainly purchased by old people who want something cheaper and more sensible than a Caddy. GMC doesn't sell cars, much less hybrids or EVs.
The only way the Volt could do worse is if it had been made by Chrysler, and even that's debatable. If it were sold by Ford, I think it'd be a lot more successful than it is now. If it were sold by Toyota or Honda, it'd be a good success.
Maybe GM should just sell the drivetrain to other carmakers. This isn't an offhand remark either: there are many instances of automakers teaming up this way, including GM which used to sell Japanese cars under its "Geo" brand in the early 90s. Right now, Subaru and Toyota sell a sports car they co-developed (Subaru BRZ / Scion FR-S), which has a Subaru-made engine (I think the body is by Toyota). Scion looks like they're in the process of folding now, but they were going to sell the Mazda 2 as a Scion vehicle in the US. Lotus cars use Toyota engines. Mazda recently built a prototype version of the Mazda 3 that has a Toyota-licensed hybrid system from the Prius. There's no reason GM can't license its tech to other automakers, or even sell complete drivetrain systems. If the performance is good enough (to be similar to my current car's 184hp engine), I'd love to have a car that combines this drivetrain with a body and suspension/steering like my current Mazda.
GM sells the Cadillac ELR - they only sold about 2,000 over them over the last 2 years, and it was canceled this year. It's too close to the volt and has a way higher MSRP. They might have been better off just releasing the Cadillac version, and then released the Volt later as a cheaper alternative. The Volt MSRP'ed at $39,900 but you could get a $7,500 tax credit and $4,000 incentive from GM, effectively making it a $28,000 car.
This might have something to do with it as well:
I'm aware that a Tesla Model S is twice the cost but nonetheless I consider the Model S to be lightyears ahead of the Volt, if for no other reason that it does 300+miles on electricity alone.
Which is a ridiculous way to look at it. Engineering is all about system optimization: maximizing a performance function while keeping a set of metrics within limits. Having a twice-as-large cost limit gives you an enormous advantage in optimizing the other metrics.
There is no other production car that has as large an electric range. Combine it with the superchargers and other chargers, and you can go quite far without gasoline.
For some people, getting rid of petroleum as fuel is the goal.
None of this diminishes the Volt (I'd prefer one over my Prius), it's just not an aspirational vehicle.
IMO, hybrid car with an ~80 mile range and a ~50 HP gas engine that only runs at a single RPM and charges the battery's would be a great option. Instead the volt is just a 1997 Prius with a slightly larger battery. Yay for stagnation.
Note: Less than 40 HP can maintain ~85MPH on the highway. The battery can also kick in for a little extra acceleration, but you want some extra to recharge the battery ahead of time.
Instead, they add a 'full' engine and a full transmission which costs extra and adds more weight.
The real test comes when the Bolt arrives. How will be people weigh the difference of 150 miles of EV range to have a range extender? Will that 150 mile gap be too high for the Volt to compete with or will how space is used and packaging matter (CUV vs small sedan)?
While I think they had a good idea in a two door version the ELR was so silly over priced (gen 2 of it was as bad or worse for reusing gen 1 tech even after gen 2 volt was selling) that it was a failure before it shipped. Chevy should had the two door as well as small CUV form. Cover all bases, same frame, just different bodies. (think Cruze).