When the Arosa was launched in September 1997, the British public was just coming round to the idea of super compact city cars. The Fiat Cinquecento had paved the way and the Ford Ka was, after initial public shock at its styling, beginning to sell in volume. In many ways, SEAT were not entering this sector completely afresh, as the sub-basic SEAT Marbella, based on Fiat's old Panda, had been their offering for years. The Marbella, however, did not fit in with the Volkswagen Group's ideas of what a SEAT should represent, and most are now enjoying their retirement on the Costa del Crime.
Upon launch, the Arosa range consisted of the 1.0 manual, boasting a hardly terrifying 50bhp, and the 1.4 litre from which it is said experienced drivers could extract 60bhp. Shortly afterwards, in January 1998, the Arosa 1.7 SDi was launched with a manual gearbox and a 60bhp output from its tiny turbodiesel unit. This was for some time Britain's most fuel-efficient car, returning 78.5mpg on the official EC combined test cycle.
March 1999 saw the arrival of S model designations for the 1.0, 1.4 and 1.7 litre cars, and for a short while a further SE designation. All this changed in early 2000, when SEAT rationalised the range, adding a 16V Sport model with a 100bhp 1.4 litre engine. The range then consisted of 1.0, 1.0S.1.4 S Auto, 1.7 SDi and 1.4 16V Sport. In 2001 the range was facelifted with a restyled nose, tail and interior giving the Arosa more personality and better quality fittings to leapfrog the model ahead of the VW Lupo.